Jasper Dark Sky Festival

This Week’s Sky: October 16 – 23

The Moon visits Venus and Mars while Orionids streak in the predawn.

Seronik-Feb20-15 Moon Venus Mars conj

In February 2015, the Moon, Venus and Mars (the faint, star-like point between the lunar crescent and bright Venus) put on a fine show in the evening sky. This week the trio reunites at dawn. Courtesy Gary Seronik

All Week

The view facing east, one hour before sunrise.

Saturn’s rings are currently tilted 27 degrees earthward—the maximum amount possible. Unfortunately, the 0.5-magnitude planet sits less than 20 degrees above the southwest horizon as twilight begins to fade. Still, the rings reach their greatest tilt angle only every 15 years, so be sure to get you scope out for a look. The rest of the planetary action takes place at dawn. First up is 1.8-magnitude Mars, which rises shortly after 5 a.m., local daylight time. The red planet is currently situated in Virgo, near 3.6-magnitude Beta (β) Virginis. Roughly 45 minutes after Mars appears, brilliant Venus pops up to steal the show. At magnitude –3.9, Venus is easily the brightest point of light in the sky. Although it will linger for another two months, Venus rises slightly later each morning as it slowly reaches the end of its current apparition, which began all the way back in March.

October 17

The Moon and Mars as seen in 10×50 binoculars.

This morning a thin, waning crescent Moon sits roughly 1 degree from Mars. The close pairing will be a lovely sight in binoculars and also in a small telescope if used at low magnification. The best time to look is roughly 45 minutes before sunrise, when the two objects are about 15 degrees above the east horizon. Venus, beaming away 7 degrees east of Mars, will add extra lustre to the scene for naked-eye observers. By the time all three rise on the West Coast, the Moon will have shifted a little away from Mars and a bit closer to Venus.

October 19

The Moon is new at 3:12 p.m., EDT.

Uranus reaches opposition today, which means it’s visible all night long. For more on viewing the planet, see Weekend Stargazer below.

October 21

The Orionid meteor shower radiates from a region of sky north of Betelgeuse. SkyNews chart by Glenn LeDrew

During the predawn hours, the Orionid meteor shower reaches its peak. It’s a modest display made up of debris shed by Halley’s Comet, and under good conditions (a moonless sky and far from city lights) you can expect to see as many as a dozen Orionids per hour. As shown in the chart above, the radiant point lies between Betelgeuse and the eastern “foot” of Gemini.

Weekend Stargazer

Use this chart to locate Uranus this weekend. (Click on the image for a full-size version.)

As noted above, Uranus reached opposition on Thursday, which makes the October 20 – 22 weekend a good one for getting acquainted with the faraway world.

Uranus was the first planet discovered after the invention of the telescope. British astronomer William Herschel found it with his 6-inch reflector from his home in Bath, England, in March 1781. When Herschel stumbled across Uranus, he mistook it for a comet. Only after months of accumulated observations was an orbit calculated and the planet’s true nature became apparent.

Currently, slow-moving Uranus is a 5.7-magnitude dot residing in Pisces. As the chart above shows, the planet is positioned roughly 2 degrees west-northwest of 4th-magnitude Omicron (ο) Piscium. Even under light-polluted skies, Uranus is within easy reach of binoculars, though you may have some trouble distinguishing it from nearby stars. This is where a telescope comes in handy. Once you’ve located the correct field, bump up the magnification and look for a tiny, pale-green disc. That’s Uranus. It spans only 3.7 arc seconds, so there’s not much to see—the fun lies in repeating Herschel’s discovery. Even with a much smaller telescope, you should have little trouble finding the planet. After all, you have the considerable advantage of knowing exactly where to look, and what you’re looking for!

At SkyNews we love to read about your experiences and see your photos. You can share them with us by e-mailing skynews@skynews.ca.

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