Conversation Starter – the night sky

Big thanks to Mr. Ashbaugh for submitting this week’s conversation starter!

Now is a great time to catch some of our local planets in the night sky.  October has the advantage of warm evenings with early sunsets and some of the observing can even be done before a normal bed time.  And let’s face it, we could all do with something beyond the Earthly goings on these days to calibrate our perspective.

Look to the Southeast low in the sky as soon as it gets dark – the brightest object you see will be Jupiter.  If you have mountains to your South, you might have to head to the center of the Squamish valley area to get the view.  Jupiter is substantially South of the Moon that currently rises about 70 minutes after Jupiter is visible (location dependant).

With good binoculars and a stable stance (leaning against a car or fence), you can pick out a line of up to four of Jupiter’s largest moons extending in two directions.  These are just the largest of Jupiter’s many moons and if you watch them over an hour or so, you can pick out changes in their locations as they orbit the gas giant.  Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are their names.

Not long after Jupiter is visible, you can pick out Saturn about one “fist width” to the left where a “fist width” is the distance across your knuckles on your outreached arm.  With binoculars, you may be able to discern the planet’s lack of perfect roundness.  Those are its highly reflective rings presenting themselves on an angle and giving rise to its oblong profile.  With a low-power telescope, you may be able to discern the rings from the planet itself – a most rewarding sight.

If you can stay up just a bit later, you will see Mars near the moon.  It is the reddest and one of the largest objects in the sky (not including the Moon) right now.  Oct. 6 marks its brightest appearance and closest pass to Earth for the next 15 years.

Three planets all within one quadrant of the sky!  This is about as easy as it gets to start building familiarity with our local friends.  If you’re not sure what you’re seeing is a planet, consider whether or not it twinkles.  Light reflected from planets is steady – no twinkle – because of their large angular size.  Twinkling is for stars only.  Enjoy and tell others what you’ve seen.  

Ms. Keeling
Ms. Keeling