Our brains fool us into thinking things near the horizon are bigger than they really are. And the power of suggestion works wonders in getting a crowd to agree that something looks extra big, even if you otherwise wouldn’t notice the difference.
These two things helped the most recent lunar eclipse, the fourth one in two years, be it a bit more fun to watch than the other three. Also, the early evening timing helped considerably, since it didn’t require going outside at 2 a.m.
By the way, the terms “super moon” and “blood moon” are from modern popular culture and the media, and they have no astronomical background or significance. Yes, the moon in this eclipse was marginally larger and darker than a typical lunar eclipse, but most of us would be hard-pressed to tell the difference without instruments or some sort of observing aid.
You don’t have to wait until 2033 (advertised as the next “super blood moon”) to see another lunar eclipse. The next one will be in January 2018, but since that one will be at dawn instead of dusk, far fewer people will get to see it.
Just after dark, the Summer Triangle and the Milky Way will be to the west of your meridian, but still high in the sky. The Summer Triangle is an asterism, or pattern of stars, that is made of the three bright stars: Vega, Deneb and Altair. These three are respectively in the constellations Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila.
Near zenith is the constellation Cygnus the Swan, also called the Northern Cross. The bright star Deneb is the tail of the swan, or the head of the cross. At the other end (the head of the swan, or the foot of the cross) is the star Alberio, a visually striking double star. Alberio is near the center of the Summer Triangle. The two stars in this double appear orange and blue in even low power telescopes, so this is often a favorite target at star parties.
Both Mercury and Venus will reach their westernmost elongations this month. That means they will be at their greatest angular separations from the sun in the morning before sunrise. Mercury will be just over 18 degrees from the sun Oct. 16. Venus will be a little over 45 degrees Oct. 26, which happens to be the same day it will be within 1 degree of Jupiter. As a bonus, those two very bright planets will have a much dimmer Mars a little over 3 degrees away.
Whenever Venus is such a bright morning object, like right now, it is fairly easy to spot at midday. You just have to know where to look. If you start watching Venus right after dawn, it is easy to keep track of while the day gets brighter and brighter. Your friends will be impressed if you can go outside at noon and point out something in the sky other than the sun or the moon.
Last month, I mentioned comet C/2013 US10 Catalina as an upcoming target. Nobody knows how bright it will get, but the best days for viewing will be after it gets around the sun and shows up in the early morning sky in early December.
The last Durango Nature Studies dark sky event of the season will be Saturday. Overall, it was a pretty good season for star parties, and we can only hope next year will be as good.
Charles Hakes is an assistant professor in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.