October offers great evening viewing

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004


  Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

This may be the month of the year for observing, at least as far as special events are concerned.

Now that we're past the equinox, nights are getting darker and longer. I know it's getting colder, too, but there's still plenty to do in the outdoors. Soon we'll be back to skiing, skating and snowmachining during the short days and, of course, astronomy at night -- which is best with hot chocolate.

There'll be a partial solar eclipse Oct. 13, visible in Japan and the western portion of North America.

The eclipse starts at 6 p.m. and is still in progress at sunset, one hour later, with a maximum of 75 percent eclipsed at sunset. It is preferable to have a nonobscured view to the west. You would have to have special eclipse glasses. I'll be at the turnout on Bridge Access Road with telescopes (equipped with appropriate solar filters) and plenty of solar eclipse glasses. Join me there.

A total lunar eclipse is observable from almost everywhere in the Americas and most of Europe, Africa and Western Asia on Oct. 27, when we have full moon.

Lunar and solar eclipses (about two or three every six months) are the only times when there are any shadows involved. I emphasize this because shadows have absolutely nothing to do with, never will, and are completely irrevocably unrelated to our moon's phases.

The eclipse already has started when the moon rises at 6 p.m. to the northeast. This is a naked eye and-or binocular event. Again I'll be at Bridge Access with telescopes until about 9 p.m.

Bridge Access isn't by far the best place to do astronomy, but the cars driving by are hardly bothersome for eclipses because eclipses don't need darkness, and the site has good views toward the west and east.

The viewing is weather permitting. If the weather doesn't cooperate, we'd have to wait until next April and October for the next lunar eclipses and until March 2007 for the next partial solar eclipse. So cross your fingers for the ones this month.

If you want to know more about eclipses, search for "Fred Espenak" (he's NASA's eclipse guru) on google.com. Find some eclipse animations on my Web site, www.wncc.net /courses/aveh/lecture/lecmove.htm. Give me a call at 262-0366 at KPC if you have further questions.

The planets put on quite a show, too. For early risers, watch Jupiter joining Venus above the eastern horizon during dawn, a conjunction of the brightest two objects in the sky (after our sun and moon). Saturn is quite high in the southeast before and during dawn, near the bright stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini.

Uranus and Neptune can be viewed low in the south for most of October. They're harder to find, and I advise to check with astronomy magazines in the libraries. Respectively, I will probably take my students to the public access beach near Kenai Landing during the evenings (after dusk) of either Wednesday or Saturday.

The stars of fall are back. This time I highlighted easy to find constellations such as the Big Dipper, the fainter Little Dipper, kite-shaped Bootes, W-shaped Cassiopeia, house-like fainter Cepheus, cross-like Cygnus, the Summer Triangle (dashed line), the Great Square of Pegasus, the arrow-like snout of Taurus and pentagon-shaped Auriga.

I also highlighted the brightest stars, red Aldebaran in Taurus, yellow Capella in the northeast, the twins Castor and Pollux on the northeast horizon, red Arcturus in Bootes (the Big Dipper's handle points to this star) and Deneb, Vega and Altair that make up the summer triangle.

The arrows show the direction in which the stars seemingly turn because of Earth rotating in the opposite direction under the stars. That means that stars set in the west and new ones rise in the east during the night.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. This column appears on the first Sunday of each month. He can be reached at aveh@uaa.alaska.edu.

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