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The Sky This Week, 2014 October 8 - 14

Planets near and far.
Total Lunar Eclipse, 2014 October 8, 10:38 UT
Click on image to see annotated version showing the planet Uranus.

The Moon wanes in the morning sky this week as she makes her way from the faint constellations of autumn to join the rising stars of winter.  Last Quarter occurs on the 15th at 3:12 pm Eastern Standard Time.  Look for Luna close to the red-hued star Aldebaran, the fiery eye of Taurus, the Bull, during the late evening on the 11th and early morning of the 12th.  During the course of the night the Moon edges ever-closer to the star, and by 6:00 am on the 12th the pair are less than a degree apart.  If you’re up at this hour take a few minutes to admire the bright stars of the Great Winter Circle, which will be straddling the meridian at the time.

Hopefully many of you had a chance to see the recent total lunar eclipse.  I was able to see it through trees and between houses in my neighborhood, and I was quite pleasantly surprised at how bright it was during the total phase.  I was able to follow it well into morning twilight, and only lost sight of it when it dropped below the tree-line.  If you missed this one you won’t have to wait too long for the next one, which will occur on April 4 next year.  Once again this will be an early morning affair, but if getting up before dawn isn’t your preference, an even better one comes along on September 27.  The latter eclipse will occur during the evening hours, and we residents of the Eastern Seaboard will have ringside seats for it.  This eclipse is also the final one in the current “tetrad” of four consecutive total lunar eclipses that began on April 15, 2014.  The next such cycle of four total eclipses will begin on April 25, 2032.

Most of the action in the evening sky occurs during the hours after twilight fades.  This is probably your last week to catch a glimpse of Saturn, whose golden glow may be seen low in the southwest as the sky darkens after sunset.  You probably won’t get much of a good view of him through the telescope due to his low altitude, and by the end of the week he sets at the end of evening twilight.

Ruddy Mars is now the only bright naked-eye planet visible in the evening sky.  He’s also rater low in the southwest, but his ruddy tint should help you identify him.  The red planet manages to keep a steady distance from the Sun, and you’ll probably notice his rapid motion from night to night as he heads eastward from the stars of Scorpius toward the “Teapot” asterism of Sagittarius.  However, he sets at about 9:30 pm, so you’ll need to act quickly to see him.

There are two more planets that will keep us company during the overnight hours until Jupiter rises at around 2:00 am.  Both planets need optical aid to chase down, but if you can find them you’ll join a fairly exclusive club.  Neptune is the solar system’s most distant planet, but it is visible in binoculars as a faint 8th-magnitude “star” just half a degree northwest of the 4th-magnitide star Sigma Aquarii near the meridian at 10:00 pm.  You’ll need binoculars to see it at all, but a modest telescope should resolve its tiny bluish-grey disc.  Slightly closer to us is Uranus, which reached opposition near the eclipsed Moon on the 8th.  This planet, shining at 6th-magnitude, is a somewhat easier target than Neptune and forms the southwest apex of a triangle with the 4th-magnitude stars Delta and Epsilon Piscium.  Again, you can identify it in binoculars, and a three-inch telescope should reveal its greenish disc.

If you’re looking for bright planets your best bet is to rise before the Sun.  That’s when Jupiter will be at his best, high in the eastern sky as morning twilight gathers.  I had a good look at him as I was observing the eclipse, and his cheery glow gives me something to look forward to as we enter the winter season and the year’s longest nights.  I’ll be taking advantage of the late sunrises in these last few weeks before we set our clocks back to catch him in the telescope before heading in to the office.  The lost sleep should be worth your while.




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