What’s Up for October 2019

Lucie GreenIt’s actually clear outside for once, and those twinkling stars are beckoning you out into the autumn night. But which is which?

When you are a beginner, there’s a lot to learn in a short time. But you don’t have to go it alone – we’re here to help. This page will get you started. Even so, the only way you can really do it is to go out and see for yourself.

Oh, the usual Health and Safety warning. It can get pretty cold out there at this time of year, so put your coat on. This is not your mother talking, it just makes sense. The more comfortable you are, the better you will enjoy stargazing. Who cares if it’s an anorak – no one can see you. And a bobble hat helps, too. A hoodie? That’s up to you, as long as the hood doesn’t actually cover your eyes when you look up….

You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here is our map for this month:

Night Sky for Oct 19

Wrong way round?

Now don’t be a clever dick and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round. How you hold your computer above your head is up to you! Best to use a tablet or phone!

It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.

The map shows the sky in the middle of the month at about 10 pm, at the start of the month at 11 pm, or by the end of the month at 9 pm. All times are BST, but we go back to GMT on Sunday 27 October so at the end of the month everything will be an hour earlier.

TIP If you aren’t sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.

Making sense of the stars

One constellation or star group that many people recognise straight away is the Plough. This is low down in the north at the moment, so turn the map upside down and you will see the seven-star pattern in the north-west. OK, it might not look much like one of those spiky things you see in fields being towed around by a Massey Ferguson, but these names were given a long time ago, long before Massey met Ferguson. So think of it as a saucepan instead. Once you have found this, you will get an idea of the scale of the map compared with the sky.

Next turn round so you’re facing south and look over your head for the three stars marked Deneb, Vega and Altair. Vega is also one of the brightest stars in the sky. Altair has two fainter stars on either side of it, though in a poor sky you may only see the upper one. These three stars, Deneb, Vega and Altair are called the Summer Triangle, even though they are still visible well into autumn.

Once you have found the Summer Triangle, you can now start to look for some constellations. There’s Cygnus, the Swan, also known as the Northern Cross. It is a large cross-shape with Deneb at the top, marking the tail of the swan which flies down the Milky Way with outstretched wings. Fair point. You live in Neasden or Newcastle and can’t see this Milky Way which is shown on the map. You’ll just have to take our word for it that it’s there. To find out more about Cygnus, including why it is unsuitable for children, click here. One of the best-known stars in Cygnus is Albireo, a fairly faint star marking the head of the Swan, or the foot of the Cross. Midway between Altair and Albireo is a rather cute constellation called Sagitta, which means Arrow, along with two neighboursVulpecula and Delphinus.  They may be small, but they have a lot going for them, so take a look.

Night sky for Oct 19
All maps produced using Stellarium software.

Where are the planets?

Our map doesn’t actually show any planets this month, but actually Saturn is around but it is low in the south-west for a couple of hours after sunset so doesn’t quite make it onto our map. It’s a fairly bright starlike object and there are no bright stars nearby so it’s not too hard to spot. Look for the crescent Moon during twilight on the 5th and Saturn will be just above and to its left.  A telescope will show those glorious rings, but because it’s so low down you won’t get a very good view. But hey, Saturn’s rings are always worth a look.

Jupiter is also low in the south-western twilight sky and is brighter and to the right of Saturn, so take a look about an hour after sunset. The crescent Moon is close to it on the 3rd, which will make it easier to spot. Even binoculars will show up to four of its bright moons, which change position from night to night as they orbit the planet. Try to get a look two nights in a row, if the weather allows it, and make a quick sketch each time to prove it for yourself.

Mars, Venus and Mercury are too close to the Sun to be seen this month.

For a detailed list of things happening in the sky, click here.

Other constellations to look for

Going back to the Summer Triangle, find Altair and follow the line of the three stars down towards the south until you came to a brightish star as shown on the map, Alpha Capricorni. You should be able to pick out that this consists of two stars – a double star.  Actually, the fainter star is about six times the distance of the brighter one.

Look about half-way up the sky for a large square of stars. To tell the truth it isn’t a perfect square, but give us a break, we have to make the most of the shapes the stars make.  It’s known as the Square of Pegasus, and represents a flying horse. Fortunately for those of us down on Earth, this horse has no rear end.

You can use the Square of Pegasus as a signpost to find other constellations. Follow the diagonal down to the lower right an equal distance and you come to a faint group of stars known as the Water Jar of Aquarius.  You’ll probably need binoculars to find this in a town sky. It’s easily recognised by its arrow shape, which looks a bit like a fighter plane with swept wings.  Though it’s not the brightest part of Aquarius, it’s a good pattern that helps you to find the other stars.

Follow the right-hand edge of the Square right down to the horizon and you’ll see the bright star Fomalhaut, in the constellation of the Southern Fish. People often overlook this star as it’s quite low down, but it’s the most southerly first-magnitude star visible from the UK, if that means anything.

If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here

Shooting stars…

For a few nights around the 22nd you might see some Orionid meteors, which occur each year at this time. They won’t start to appear until after 10 pm BST, because that’s when their radiant (to the top left of Orion) rises in the east. The radiant is the direction from which they appear to stream, so they will appear to come from a point below Capella at the top of the map. Don’t expect hundreds – one every ten minutes or so is usually a reasonable number, but you might just be lucky and see more.

This year, their activity peaks with the Moon well after full, and although it rises about 1 am it won’t be too troublesome as it is past last quarter. You can read more about the Orionids in this guide

What about the Moon, then?

At the very start of the month the Moon is too close to the Sun to be seen, as New Moon was on 28 September. This is when it’s in line with the Sun and you can’t see it at all. You should see the crescent Moon over in the western twilight on the 1st about 30 minutes after sunset. It will be close to Jupiter on the 3rd, so if you can find the Moon,  Jupiter will be just below it and to the left. There’s first quarter on the 5th, with Saturn just above it and to its left, then full Moon is on the 13th. Last quarter is on the 21st, and the month ends with new Moon on the 28th. You might spot a thin crescent moon low in the south-western twilight about 30 minutes after sunset on the 30th, with another close approach to Jupiter on the 31st. Wooo, spooky! Sorry, no eclipses this month.

Get more helpful info

OK, you’ve read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It’s based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn’t cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer.

Text by Robin Scagell