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The Sky This Week, 2014 October 14 - 21

Some things to look forward to...
Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy
Imaged 2014 August 30 from near Morratico, Virginia, USA
80mm (3.1-inch) f/6 Antares Sentinel refractor on iOptron Cube Pro mounting,
Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR

The Moon moves through the constellations of late winter and early spring as she wanes from last quarter to a slender crescent in the morning sky. New Moon occurs on the 23rd at 5:57 pm Eastern Daylight Time. You’ll find the Moon near bright Jupiter before dawn on the mornings of the 17th and 18th. On the latter morning she forms the southern apex of a right triangle with Jupiter and the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo, the Lion. You’ll find her to the southeast of the star on the morning of the 19th.

The New Moon on the 23rd will produce a partial solar eclipse for almost all residents of the continental United States. The last one that was visible from most of the country was the eclipse of December 14, 2001. Both the latter event and the upcoming eclipse will favor western observers, but here in the Washington area and along most of the east coast we’ll catch a brief glimpse of the Moon’s disc sliding across the Sun just before sunset on the 23rd. You’ll have to act quickly and have a good flat horizon to the west if you want to observe it locally here in DC. The eclipse will begin at 5:52 pm EDT with the Sun only four degrees above the horizon. The Sun will set at 6:22 pm with about 33 percent of its face hidden by the Moon. Remember, though, that it is always dangerous to look at the Sun without proper eye protection, so please observe the eclipse with care.

If you want to see the maximum eclipse, find your way to extreme northern Canada's Nunavut Territory near Prince of Wales Island about 1000 kilometers northwest of Hudson Bay. There you’ll see over 80 percent of the Sun obscured at the moment of local sunset! If you miss this one you’ll have a much better chance to see the eclipse of August 21, 2017. That one will be a total solar eclipse that will be visible across the entire nation. Mark it on your calendars; the last total solar eclipse visible from the “Lower 48” was that of March 7, 1970, and the next one won’t cross the country until April 8, 2024!

You can still find the lingering stars of summer in the early evening. By the end of evening twilight at around 8:00 pm the stars of the Summer Triangle are still directly overhead. In fact, the star Sadr, which marks the mid-point of the body of Cygnus the Swan, is almost exactly at the zenith at this time. Sadr is located in one of the more dense star-clouds of the Milky Way, and from a dark location it is a fascinating part of the sky to examine with binoculars or a low-power telescope. This is the area where the Galaxy seems to split into two distinct streams of light, divided by a dark rift that can be traced down to the southwest horizon. The constellation of Cygnus is popularly known as the Northern Cross, and with a bit of imagination it is possible to make a pretty decent flying swan out of its brighter stars. It’s also possible to understand why the Inuit of the arctic regions saw the figure of a man paddling a kayak along the stream of Milky Way that they called the “Pebbly River”. By 11:00 pm the Summer Triangle is lowering in the western sky and the “Great Square” of Pegasus takes its place on the meridian. Your binoculars will show a much lower concentration of stars here, but large telescopes reveal hundreds of external galaxies in the vicinity. Just northeast of the top left corner of the square is one such galaxy that’s close enough to be seen with the naked eye and is an easy sight in binoculars. The Great Andromeda Galaxy is our nearest large galactic companion, and it is getting closer every day. Don’t worry, though, the collision won’t happen for another one or two billion years!

Mars may still be found in the southwestern sky at the end of evening twilight. The red planet is sliding eastward between Scorpius and Sagittarius as he keeps pace with the advancing Sun. Mars will receive a cosmic visitor on the 19th in the form of an obscure comet known as C/2013 A1 Siding Spring. This cosmic fluffball will pass just over 80,000 miles from the planet where it is hoped that the bevy of spacecraft in the vicinity will be able to study it. It should be a busy week up there.

Giant Jupiter continues to climb higher in the early morning sky. He should put on quite a show on the mornings of the 17th and 18th as the Moon pays him a visit. If you’re out at around 6:00 am these days give him a look, and if you turn to the south give a wave to Orion and his cohorts on the meridian as morning twilight gathers.

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