Got five minutes? The Moon is currently thin or absent, so the sky is nice and dark. There’s cool stuff to see and it’s all very easy to find. I’ll show you 7 stars and planets in just a few minutes.
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. October 6, 2021 brings the 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. Let your eyes adjust for about 20 minutes to best see the stars and planets.
- Face west towards the final lingering glow of dusk, the place where the sun sets. You’ll see the thin crescent Moon with Venus hovering just below.
- Can you also see the bright orange star Antares which appears to the upper right? 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 turn to your South and even brighter star, which is the planet Jupiter. Confirm your sighting by noting there’s a less-bright star that appears to Jupiter’s 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.
- Now, still looking southweard, peer to the lower left of bright Jupiter. You should see a bright, solitary star. This is Fomalhaut which is sometimes called “the Loneliest Star.” It appears as the only bright star in a wide stretch of sky during autumn. You can tell Fomalhaut is a star (versus Jupiter and Saturn) because it’s twinkling.
- Next step: Crane your neck and look high in the west. The brightest star is Vega, pronounced VEE-ga. It’s just 25 light years away, and it radiates a diamond-like, bluish color. Vega, along with Deneb and Altair, make up 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.