Skywatch: October packs planetary punch, rare shadow dance

Gaze toward the crisp, autumnal heavens as October packs plenty of planets.

As night falls, the planetary action begins in the western sky. Venus, the glorious and bright negative fourth-magnitude planet, is easily seen at dusk — look carefully to spot the gleaming gem after sundown. Late in October, the sun sets around 6, and Venus sets around 8:30. The young moon — in its waxing, crescent phase — passes Venus on Oct. 8.

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Also after sunset, Saturn will be hard to see as it races toward the horizon in the south-southwestern sky. While Saturn says so long by month’s end, it will reappear at the end of November.

Jovial Jupiter rises after midnight now in the east-northeast, and you’ll be able to find it easily at negative second magnitude (bright).

In the early morning of Oct. 12, the East Coast’s finest astronomical photographers get a treat: a rare triple-shadow transit. The shadows of Callisto, Io and Europa — three of Jupiter’s four large moons — appear on the planet’s surface starting at 12:32 through 1:37. It’s low on the horizon, and you’ll need a telescope to see it.

Our red neighbor, Mars, loiters in the morning sky as it rises about 3. The planet is found high in the eastern sky about 6, but at 1.6 magnitude, it could be tough to find. The elderly, waning crescent moon passes Mars on Oct. 1.

Also on Oct. 1, Comet ISON will be passing Mars at a distance of 0.07 astronomical units, or a mere 6.5 million miles. Astronomers hope that the comet may get within naked-eye visibility range by late November.

The night of Oct. 18 features a full moon and a primetime penumbral lunar eclipse.

For this eclipse, the moon slides through the outer ring, called the penumbra, of Earth’s shadow. In other words, the sun is behind Earth and the moon rides through the penumbral (outer ring) shading.

In a total lunar eclipse, the moon glides through the central or umbral portion of the shadow, and the lunar disk turns a dark red shade. (eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html .)

To catch the penumbral eclipse, find the moon as it rises in the east. The event’s best part is between 7:30 and 8:10, according to noted eclipse expert Fred Espenak (www.astropixels.com/blog). The keenest of skygazers may note some slightly darker lunar shading.

Down to Earth events:

●Oct. 5: The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club’s annual “Star Gaze Saturday” offers safe, solar viewing through sunset of planets and a plethora of nebulae and stars. Astronomers guide the way via telescopes and bin­oculars. C.M. Crockett Park in Fauquier County, Va. 3-11 p.m. www.novac.com/wp/outreach/stargaze.

●Oct. 5: “The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission,” a lecture by Kelly Fast of the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Scan the heavens afterward, weather permitting. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse .

●Oct. 10: “Sculpture on the Moon,” a lecture by sculptor Paul van Hoeydonck. In 1971, Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott left a miniature Hoeydonck sculpture, the “Fallen Astronaut,” made of aluminum, on the lunar surface to honor American and Soviet spacefarers. Moving Beyond Earth Gallery, Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 1 p.m. Webcast: airandspace.si.edu/events/­webcasts.cfm.

●Oct. 12: Using large-scale computer-aided searches, astronomer Sarah E. Brown finds pulsars and maps our cosmos in her lecture “The Back Door to Astronomy.” National Capital Astronomers meeting, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. capital
astronomers.org
.

●Oct. 13: “An Introduction to Space Weather,” a lecture by Bob Weigel of George Mason University. Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, Room 163, Research Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.

●Oct. 19: “How to Find a Habitable Planet,” a lecture by Courtney Dressing of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Albert Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 5:15 p.m. airandspace.si.edu .

●Oct. 19: “When Was Creation? Estimates of the Age of the Universe Through Time.” Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park, 7 p.m. www.
montgomerycollege.edu/
departments/planet
.

●Oct. 20: Astronomy chat with Joleen Carlberg of the Car­negie Institution of Washington, who studies evolutionary links between stars and planets.
Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 2 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.

●Oct. 20: Learn about our heavens, then see stars and planets through large telescopes. University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Telescopic viewing is weather-dependent.
9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

Friedlander can be reached at .

 
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