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home : • astronomy : astronomy
October 23, 2017


Star Dust: Eclipse of the Moon Visible
The night sky in October

by Roger Ptak


Planets are scarce in our skies this October, but we do have a total eclipse of the Moon on tap. Mars is basically the only easy evening planet, and it will set three hours after the Sun all month long. Saturn will be low in the western sky at dusk early in the month, but lost by month's end. Venus is too low to see at dawn, and the very bright star high in the southeast will be Jupiter.

In the evening of the 3rd, Mars will sit half the width of your fist (with your arm straight out) to the upper left of Antares. As Mars shifts eastward during the month, the gap between them will widen to two fists before Antares gets lost in twilight. If you look about 7:15, you may be able to notice Saturn more than two fists to the lower right. (All times are for the evening in the midcoast area unless otherwise noted.)

We have an opportunity to see Uranus with binoculars in the evening of the 7th, using the Moon as a guide. Uranus will be just half a fist to the lower left of the Moon, and we can try for it starting around 8. However, the light from the nearly full Moon will be a hindrance to observing this dim planet. Circumstances might be more favorable the following morning, when the Moon will be dimmed by Earth's shadow, although they will be quite low.

The Moon will begin moving into Earth's shadow at 5:15 a.m. on the 8th, and the total eclipse will start at 6:25 a.m. I think the best time to try for Uranus will be at 6:10 a.m., when it will be closely left of the darkened Moon, directly west and half a fist above the horizon. The Moon will set at 6:55 a.m., ending the show. (Sunrise will be at 6:42 that morning, so twilight will be a complicating factor.)

Aldebaran, the reddish eye of Taurus, will rise just after the Moon on the 11th. They should be high enough to see left of east by 9:30. The lovely cluster of stars called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, will float a fist above the Moon.

A good morning to check on Jupiter would be the 17th, when it will have a nice crescent Moon less than a fist to its upper right. Jupiter will be quite bright and high in the southeast at 6 a.m.

A comet named Siding Spring is going to brush past Mars on the 19th. At 2:28 p.m. (EDT) the comet will pass just 82,000 miles from the Red Planet, the closest encounter with any inner planet ever recorded.


Early on, NASA feared that Siding Spring would strike Mars, causing havoc with the robots operating there. As it is, the shower of debris from the passing comet could be a danger for the delicate instruments of the rovers and orbiters. It has been possible to divert the orbiters so that they will all be on the other side of Mars when the comet zooms by. Seeing the comet from Earth will be difficult, but we can imagine how it would look if we were standing on Mars when it passes.

The Moon will be at new phase on the 23rd, and the dark skies a few days before and after this will be best for observing dim targets with binoculars. The sky will be truly dark by 8, and the Pleiades should be high enough to see in the east. The eye sees six stars in this cluster, but binoculars might show a hundred. Also, the Milky Way will span the sky and flow through the Summer Triangle, very high in the western sky.

There will be a partial eclipse of the Sun on the 23rd, which will be visible from most of North America, except for Maine. For us, the Sun will have set before the eclipse begins. If you happen to be somewhere else at that time, you can take a look. However, you must use a proper solar filter (NO SUBSTITUTES!) to view the Sun. If you fry your retina (which feels no pain), it is gone forever.

The eclipse will begin about 5:45 p.m. EDT, with the darkening of the Sun's right edge. Maximum coverage will occur about an hour later.

We might be able to spot a slender crescent Moon low in the southwest at dusk of the 25th. If you are able to see it about 6:15, you might also notice Saturn just to its lower right. It will be much easier to see the narrow crescent the following evening, more than a fist up in the southwest at that same time.

On the 27th, we can see Mars a fist to the left of the Moon starting at 6:15. If you wait until 7:15, binoculars could show Mars, above the Teapot Sagittarius, lined up with two patches of light. These are clouds of hot gas where new stars are forming. In fact, these clouds will be in the same binocular field as Mars from the 21st on. Mars will be right of them before the 23rd and left afterwards.

If you have a view to the west and have the time, it should be fun to watch the Moon slip into the darkness of the Earth's shadow. You can tell your children it's a new app you can use without an iPad.

© Roger Ptak 2014




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