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5 Sky Events This Week: Orion’s Meteors, Hidden Sun, and Zodiacal Light

This image beautifully captures the zodiacal light, a triangular glow seen best in night skies free of overpowering moonlight and light pollution. The photo was taken at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile facing after dusk.   The zodiacal light is sunlight reflected by dust particles between the Sun and Earth. It appears in the ring of constellations known as the zodiac. These are found along the ecliptic, which is the eastward apparent “path” that the Sun traces across Earth’s sky.  Credit:  ESO/Y. Beletsky
Zodiacal light is a triangular glow seen best in night skies free of  light pollution. 
Courtesy of ESO/Y. Beletsky

A spooky celestial sky show delights sky-watchers this week, in anticipation of October’s Halloween holiday, by offering everything from shooting stars to a solar disappearing act to ghostly light from beyond.

Orionids peak. In the predawn hours of Tuesday, October 21, and the following mornings, the Orionid meteor shower peaks, with as many as 20 shooting stars zipping across the sky every hour.

The Orionids appear to radiate out from their namesake constellation Orion, the Hunter, which rises in the northeast just before midnight this time of year. Orion is one of the easiest star patterns to recognize, thanks to its three bright stars that line up in a perfect row, marking the mythical figure’s belt.

Orionid metoers appear to radiate out from near their namesake constellation Orion, which rises near midnight in the east this time of the year. Credit: Starry Night Software / A.Fazekas
Orionid meteors appear to radiate out from the sky near their namesake constellation Orion, which rises near midnight in the east this time of year. Credit: Starry Night Software/A. Fazekas

Mercury morning. Early risers on Wednesday, October 22, get a chance to spot the elusive innermost planet in the solar system, which will swing very low above the eastern horizon at dawn.

Binoculars and telescopes will help you to scan the brightening sky for faint Mercury, as will the thin crescent moon that appears perched above the tiny planet. The two objects will appear separated by about 5 degrees, equal to the width of your fist held at arm’s length.

Through a telescope, the faint world will appear particularly interesting because it will look like a miniature version of our moon—except it will lack a superthin crescent.

Mercury is best spotted from a location with a totally unobstructed view of the eastern horizon, about a half hour before local sunrise.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 10.21.10 AM
A sky chart shows faint Mercury suspended in dawn’s glow just below the razor-thin crescent moon on October 22, 2014. Credit: SkySafari

Zodiacal light. At about an hour before sunrise on Thursday, October 23, and for the next two weeks afterward, keen sky-watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can hunt down one of the most elusive of astronomical phenomena—Zodiacal light.

This pyramid-shaped beam of light is easily mistaken for the lights of a far-off city just over the dark horizon in the countryside. It has also been called the “false dawn.” But this light is more ethereal; it is caused by sunlight reflecting off cosmic dust between the planets.

The best time to catch this ghostly sky light is about an hour before sunrise, looking toward the eastern horizon from the dark countryside.

This celestial phenomenon is actually the reflection of billions of dust-size particles left behind in interplanetary space after the planets formed about 4.6 billion years ago.

Partial solar eclipse. As the moon enters its new phase on Thursday, October 23, it will appear to partially hide the sun for most of the afternoon for onlookers across North America.

From the eastern part of the continent, the partial eclipse will still be under way at mid-afternoon as the sun sets, while those out west will see the entire partial eclipse play out. The farther west and north you live, the deeper the eclipse will appear, meaning that more of the sun will appear hidden by the moon’s silhouette. The best opportunities to see the eclipse will be in Alaska and in Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, where over 80 percent of the sun will be blocked by the moon.

Just a reminder: Never look at the sun directly with unprotected eyes and always use solar filters. 

 

This Skychart shows the thin crescent moon pointing the way to Saturn a half hour after sunset on October 25, 2014. Credit: SkySafari
This sky chart shows the thin crescent moon pointing the way to Saturn a half hour after sunset on October 25, 2014. Credit: SkySafari

Sayonara, Saturn. Up for a great binocular challenge? Look toward the very low southwestern horizon at dusk on Saturday, October 25, for your last views of Saturn before it’s lost in the glare of the sun.

Considered the jewel of the solar system, Saturn has been dominating the early evening skies for most of summer and autumn. Now it is sinking fast in the evening skies as it heads behind the sun before it returns to the morning skies in late November.

Hint: Try using the superthin waxing crescent moon to find the Lord of the Rings, which will hide only 3 degrees below the lunar orb.

Happy hunting!

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Comments

  1. Ron Thorkildson
    Sisters, OR
    March 23, 2015, 11:10 pm

    Astronomy students at Sisters High School, in Sisters, OR, are writing an article about the zodiacal light for the local newspaper, The Nugget. I’m asking permission to use your picture of the zodiacal light to run with the article. If you grant permission to use it, how should credit be given? Also, from where was the photo taken? Thanks.

  2. Mianrafiq ahmad
    Lahore,Pakistan
    October 21, 2014, 7:14 am

    A rare phenomenon and lucky to watch.

  3. Mianrafiq ahmad
    Lahore,pakistan
    October 21, 2014, 7:07 am

    All praises for God and His fantastic Universe—–Absolute Beauty.

  4. Raphael Mawrence
    Santa Cruz, CA
    October 21, 2014, 1:10 am

    Time to grab the Canon…