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The Sky This Week, 2014 October 28 - November 4

Fall rituals: Halloween and setting clocks
ISS_Temple_141027_2252_01small.jpg
International Space Station over the George Washington Masonic Memorial
imaged in Alexandria, VA on 2014 OCT 27, 18:52 EDT

The Moon waxes in the evening sky this week, brightening up the sparse starfields of the autumnal constellations.  First Quarter occurs on the 30th at 10:48 pm Eastern Daylight Time.  Luna begins the week near the southern horizon among the stars of Sagittarius, then courses her way through the constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pisces.  These star patterns cover quite a bit of sky, but contain no stars brighter than third magnitude.  The once exception is the star Fomalhaut, which lies due south at about 9:30 pm.  Fomalhaut is the 18th brightest star in the sky and is notable as hosting the first extra-solar planet imaged at visible light wavelengths.  Look for the Moon just under 8 degrees northeast of Mars on the evening of the 28th.  On the 30th she lies just east of the third-magnitude star Dabih in Capricornus.

If you have a telescope and the weather is clear, you might want to give the visiting ghouls and goblins a peek at the Moon as one of their “treats” for the evening.  While a peek at Luna’s battered landscape isn’t quite the same as a dark-chocolate Milky Way bar, it’s always a treat for me to hear the reactions of kids (and their parents as well) when the see the Moon’s sharply outlined craters and ink-black shadows in the eyepiece.  Weather permitting I’ll have mine set up at sunset and will probably not take it down for several hours.  Even after the trick-or-treaters have gone it’s a great way to get to know your neighbors!

The celebration of Halloween itself has deep astronomical roots that go back thousands of years.  It is probably the most widely celebrated of the archaic “cross-quarter days” that defined the cycle of the seasons in pagan cultures.  The date falls roughly halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, the “quarter days”, and was one of the eight days in a year when serfs paid their due to their feudal masters.  Gaelic people observed it as Samhain, the beginning of the “dark half” of the year when spirits could more easily transit from the netherworld to ours.  Bonfires and lanterns were lit to ward off the spirits and take control of the longer nights.  The coming of Christianity to Celtic lands merged the celebration of Samhain with All Saints’ Day and other attendant holy days like All Souls’ Day.  In Central America, pre-Columbian veneration of ancestors evolved into today’s Dia de los Muertos, which is widely observed on November 2nd.

Halloween is now also a reminder to change your clocks back to Standard Time, a ritual that now officially occurs at 2:00 am on the first Sunday in November.  This year it falls on the 2nd, giving us back the hour of sleep we lost “springing forward” on the third Sunday in March.  Needless to say, changing clocks has never been a terribly popular idea, but it is the law of the land.  For the record the USNO has no say in this matter, which is specified in U.S. Code per act of Congress.  The agency responsible for enforcing the law is the Department of Transportation.  The concept of Daylight Time was advanced largely through the efforts of an English builder named William Willett, who noticed all of his neighbors were asleep in the early mornings when he took his daily horseback rides.  He was also an avid golfer and didn’t like to have his late afternoon games interrupted by twilight!

In the evening sky the only reasonably bright planet left to follow is Mars, which will remain low in the southwestern sky throughout the rest of the year.  Mars is now little more than a small pink dot in the telescope eyepiece, but it now has two surface rovers and five orbiters sending back streams of data from its environs.  Both Mars and the spacecraft in situ survived the close brush by Comet Siding Spring 10days ago, so the most interesting thing coming from the red planet will be the remote observations of the comet.

Jupiter now greets most of us during our morning routines, but thanks to the return to Standard Time he will be wrenched back to best visibility in the early morning hours.  Not being a morning person I find this to be most inconvenient as I’ll now have to get up at 5:00 am to catch a good view of him in the telescope before sunrise.  But the view is always worth the effort, and Jupiter, with his ever-changing cloud belts and dancing moons, is always a treat to look at.


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