October is an interesting month for astronomers as World Space Week falls from 4 October until 10 October and coincidentally it’s a good month for keen astronomers to take to the skies.
This time of the year is perfect for spotting the Milky Way’s sister galaxy, M31 in Andromeda. It is expected that in 4 billion years or so the Milky Way and Andromeda will collide, however when this happens none of the stars in each galaxy will collide as stars are so far apart.
Andromeda is about 2.5 million light years away from the Earth. It is the nearest galaxy to the Earth apart from smaller companion galaxies such as the Magellanic Clouds which are visible from the Southern Hemisphere.
Andromeda is a spiral galaxy just like the Milky Way and can be spotted with the naked eye on a clear dark night and therefore it has been known to humans for a very long time. However to view the Andromeda Galaxy in great detail, binoculars or a telescope would be recommended. Before 1920, it was believed that Andromeda was another area of gas within the Milky Way until Edwin Hubble confirmed its status as another spiral galaxy.
When it comes to viewing Andromeda, it can be difficult on the first attempt; however once you know its position it is hard to forget. The October sky has some well-known constellations when it comes to star gazing, and just as the summer sky has its renowned Triangle, the autumn sky has a Square in the constellation of Pegasus. Viewers can find Pegasus located in the southern part of the sky by facing the direction the Sun rises in the morning and turning a little to the right. The square of Pegasus will be quite high up in the sky at about 11pm however if you find an area with little light pollution on a clear dark night, there will be higher chances of seeing astronomical objects and constellations.
From the square of Pegasus the top left star called Alpheratz has actually been regrouped into the constellation of Andromeda and therefore you will be able to begin a search for the great spiral galaxy. As seen on the picture below, if you follow the shape of Andromeda, the arm extending out on the constellation is the best marker for finding the galaxy as it is just to the top right of the tip of the arm. Depending on whether you are viewing with binoculars or a telescope the next part of locating it through the viewing apparatus will be the most difficult.
On 8 October there will be a lunar eclipse however it will not be visible from the UK. In saying this, there is no reason not to be aware of the beauty of such events and take the opportunity to look for some pictures that may feature online. The Moon will be totally eclipsed from 11:26 until 12:24 (GMT) and there will be a partial eclipse visible from 10:15 until 13;34. (GMT) Unfortunately for all of the UK, Ireland and some of Europe, the lunar eclipse will not be visible as it occurs when the Moon is below the horizon.
Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth passes between the Moon and the Sun, blocking its light. When this happens the Earth casts a shadow across the face of the Moon and unlike solar eclipses, it is safe to observe a lunar eclipse with the naked eye. During a full lunar eclipse, at totality the Moon is shrouded completely in shadow, it will appear as a red-brown colour as some of the sun’s light has reflected on the Earth’s atmosphere.
Towards the end of the month, on 23 October there will be a New Moon making it the best time to take to the skies as the Moon will not be visible. During this period the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth, to us on Earth the Moon’s nearside is in darkness, while its farside (the half we never see from Earth) is in darkness. The New Moon makes the perfect conditions for observing some fainter objects in the sky such as galaxies or globular clusters. However binoculars and telescopes are recommended to get the best possible view.
As for planets in October, there are two visible this month and both beautiful in their own ways. To observe planets, a telescope or pair of binoculars is recommended as certain renowned features are more visible.
The blue-green planet Uranus will be making its closest approach to the Earth on the 7 October. However the Moon will be blocking any clear views of the planet on that date and therefore a few days later will give the best view. Uranus can be found just below Pisces, and if you were able to find the renowned square of Pegasus, it should help you on finding the constellation of Pisces.
Jupiter will be visible in the early hours of the morning. As you can see below in the picture the best way to locate Jupiter is to find the constellation of Leo. It is best to look for the distinguished backwards question mark forming the head and front paws of the Leo the lion, then focus on the right of the star called…marking the shoulder of Leo. The position of Jupiter below is at 11pm and a clear dark sky, as far away from light pollution as possible is recommended.
October is proving to be an interesting month for any stargazers interested in meteors as on 6-9 October, there is the Draconids meteor shower and later in the month there is the Orionids meteor shower.
The Draconids meteor shower only produces about 10 meteors per hour. It is produced by the dust left behind by a comet discovered in 1900 which is called 21P Giacobini – Zinner. The meteor shower is expected to peak on the night of 8 October into the early hours of 9 October. As there will be a full moon at this time, the meteor shower will be difficult to see, however that’s not to say they won’t be visible. The best time to see the meteor shower would be after midnight and away from light pollution to insure a clear, dark sky. The meteors will originate from the constellation Draco, however be aware they can appear from any direction in the sky. If you can locate the saucepan shaped pattern of the Plough in Ursa Major or the equally saucepan shaped Ursa Minor; the constellation of Draco is just the left of both.
As for the Orionids meteor shower, around 20 meteors can be produced each hour at its peak. These meteors are left behind from the well-known Halley’s Comet and appear annually around this time of the year, usually between the 2nd of October until the 7th of November. This year the meteor shower is expected to peak on the night of the 21st of October until the morning of the 22nd of October. This is perfect viewing time in terms of the Moon as it is not visible in the sky and therefore gives a perfect dark sky for spotting bright meteors originating from the constellation Orion but as before be aware they can come from any direction. Orion can easily be found in the nights sky due to his signature three star belt, however at this time of the year Orion is visible very late into the evening and the early hours of the morning.
As we come into the darker evenings be sure to make the most of it and go stargazing.