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Sonoma County Gazette
Guide to the Night Sky

Guide to the Night Sky

Sep 26, 2018
by Tre Gibbs


Fall is here. The days have been getting noticeably shorter while the nights have been getting longer as we slowly head towards the Winter Solstice.

Back in August (and early September), four planets were gracing our early evening skies: Venus - low in the west, Jupiter - high in the south,Saturn - climbing higher in the south east, and Mars - rising in the south east at sunset. 

This month, Venus (in Libra then heading into Virgo) is becoming lost in the glare of the setting sun,Jupiter (in Libra the Scales) is low in the south west, Saturn (in Sagittarius the Archer) is high in the south-west at sunset andMars (in Capricornus the Sea Goat) is not too far behind Saturn, high in the south-southeast at sunset.

For October, two planets will be great for naked eye viewing - Saturn and Mars.Mars will be the brighter of the two with a subtle orangey hue, while Saturn appears to the west of Mars as an average, non-twinkling “star”.  As always, the moon travels the night sky with each of the planets, making the visible ones very easy to spot — but only on a particular evening — as the moon is in constant motion around Earth.

On October 11th, look for Jupiter just below a thin crescent moon, low in the southwest.

On October 14th, the moon will have moved east to the point where it will travel the night sky with Saturn. In fact, the lower “point” of the thicker crescent moon will appear to almost be “touching” the quintessential ringed gas giant!

Three days later, on October 17th, the moon is to the right of the subtly reddish/orange Mars, while the next evening, October 18th, the moon appears to the left of “The God of War”. 

On October 24th, the moon has moved east to the point where it is directly opposite the sun and as a result, appears full.  This month’s full moon is known as “The Full Hunter’s Moon”, since it was this time of year that ancient tribes began the annual hunt to prepare for the soon to be coming winter.

Speaking of the coming winter, this is also the time of year when some recognizable constellations start to rise in the east prior to midnight.  As Earth continues her constant journey orbiting our nearest star, The Sun, at night time — when we are facing out into space — we see different patterns of stars, different times of the year. Long ago, our ancestors used the seasonally shifting and changing constellations as a sort of calendar. By watching the sky, they knew when to prepare for the winter, when it was time to plant crops, when the rains were coming, when to harvest… the sky gave them access to information that was vital to survival. Today, this same astronomical information is just as beneficial to us. By month’s end, Taurus The Bull and Orion The Hunter, both winter constellations, appear low in the east just before midnight, signaling that winter is on it’ s way.  Taurus is not as easy to spot as Orion, but one of it’ s more identifiable “asterisms” (a grouping of stars that is NOT a constellation) is thePleiades, (PLEE-uh-dees), which appears as a small and faint grouping of stars rising prior to the “V” shape of stars that make up the Bull’s face.  The Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters (and used as the Subaru logo), is often confused, by some, as The Little Dipper, and almost resembles a very tiny tennis racket. Ancient folklore told a tale of how the Pleiades was a small grouping of flies resting on The Bull’s shoulder!  Look for this cluster of stars, due east after 11:00pm in late October - and the darker the sky, the better chance you will have to see it.

Keep in mind that as the Earth continues to move around the sun, these stars, asterisms and constellations will rise earlier and earlier until, just before Spring, they are close to the western horizon at sunset, so you will have plenty of time this Fall and Winter to check them out!

As always, thanks for reading and remember…KEEP LOOKING UP!



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