Can you imagine changing your knowledge of the stars and sky in five minutes? Bob wants to prove it. This is the perfect week because the Moon is currently thin or absent. Around 7 P.M., walk outside and Bob will be your personal astronomer.
When a living room appears in the movies, we often see a telescope near the window. This tells us that it’s a common thing to possess—a decoration, a bit of modern decor. Yet few of our friends can aim it anywhere except the Moon. If one of them actually points upward and says, “That’s Saturn!” we’re impressed. There’s obviously a big separation between our theoretical interest in astronomy and any sort of actual sky-knowledge.
Want to change all that in 5 minutes? Just bring out this page and a flashlight tonight or the next clear night at 7 PM. There’s a cool stuff to see and it’s all very easy to find. Will you let me prove it?
This is an excellent time to stargaze. On October 16, 2020, we have the year’s closest and largest new moon. For five days prior and five days after the new Moon, the skies are nice and dark so we can better see the stars above. See your Moon Phase Calendar.
Quick Takes: My 5-Minute Tour to the Stars
- At about 7 PM, find a location where the sky isn’t blocked by buildings or tall trees.
- Face west towards the final lingering glow of dusk, the place where the sun sets.
- Look low in that direction. A bright orange star hovers near the horizon. This is the famous Arcturus, the second-brightest star we can ever see from the US and Canada. The light from Arcturus was deliberately focused through a telescope onto a photocell to open the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. They chose this star because it was believed to be 40 light years away, so the light arriving to open the fair had left Arcturus just as the previous world’s fair was closing. We don’t do poetic things like that anymore! Anyway, within a few years we found Arcturus is actually only 36 lightyears away. Maybe this kind of information is too arcane for our short astronomy session, so let’s move on.
- Now look left of where the sun set and you’ll immediately see an even brighter star, which is the planet Jupiter. Confirm your sighting by noting there’s a less-bright star just to its left. This is Saturn. If you have any small telescope, even one you’ve only used for decoration, these are the two best places to point it. If you don’t, simply watch Jupiter and Saturn slowly slide closer and closer together night by night until they essentially merge into one super-star on December 21—the best conjunction of our lives.
- Now, again turn left until you’re facing opposite to where the Sun set. In other words, you’re now looking east. And wow, a super brilliant orange star is low in this direction. This is Mars, now closer and brighter than it will again appear until 2035. If trees or hills block the east, look again in an hour or two, and Mars will have climbed much higher.
- Next step: Crane your neck and look straight overhead. There are three worthy targets here. The star closest to the zenith is Deneb. This star marks the direction our entire solar system is zooming toward at 144 miles per second, or 300 times faster than a rifle bullet. It’s where we are heading.
- Next, look at the very brightest star that’s high up at that 7 PM hour, although not exactly straight up. This is Vega, pronounced VEE-ga. It’s just 25 light years away, and it radiates a diamond-like, bluish color.
- Finally, there’s a third bright but not superbright star fairly high, and this is Altair. Joined with Deneb and Vega, Altair completes the famous Great Summer Triangle.
- If you’d like to finish on a familiar note, face the final direction, north, and you’ll see the Big Dipper low down, looking larger than you remember. That’s because constellations always seem bigger when they’re low.
We’ve only invested a few minutes and already we can identify at least seven stars and planets.
Now, in early fall, the brightest solar system members parade above us. Do they intrigue you, just as they fascinated people through the ages and around the world? If so, then that living room telescope truly represents mystery and infinitude instead of mere decoration.
See the my complete October Sky Watch with highlights of this month’s sky.