Let The Night Bring What It May

The Andromeda Galaxy, the brightest visible from the northern hemisphere, is one of the highlights of October skies. Photo: Bob King

Stand out in your front yard and photons from distant galaxies cover the grass like falling leaves. If you choose to sample some of these, point a telescope skyward and a few drop into your instrument where mirrors and lenses cup and then refract them into your eyeball. It sounds miraculous, but this photon rain from all corners of the universe drizzles down every day and night.

Jupiter and contrail in the moonlit sky last night. Details: 24mm lens at f/2.8, 25-second exposure at ISO 800. Photo: Bob King

Last night, sunlight reflected from the barren, dusty moon lit the gravel road my dog and I walked. A contrail from a transcontinental jet caught the moonlight and glowed like a white snake across the south. Then an interesting thing happened.  Winds aloft bent the trail in whole – without breaking it into pieces – until it stood straight up and down near Jupiter like a very skinny tornado. It was a weird sight well worth slapping the camera onto a tripod in a hurry.

While Comet Hartley 2 was visible through binoculars and telescope Saturday night, two things are happening that are changing the best times to see it. If you’ve been following the comet either from the armchair or at scopeside, you’ve noticed that it’s been zipping eastward and dropping lower in the sky night after night. Remember when it was in the W of Cassiopeia? That was just over a week ago. Now Hartley 2’s not far from the winter star Capella in Auriga the Charioteer. Auriga’s low in the northeast, so you have to wait until around 10 o’clock for a good view. One more thing. The moon’s out now, and its light brightens the sky, washing out the faint, diffuse comet.

Comet Hartley 2 passed between the star cluster NGC 1528 (left) and the nebula NGC 1491 last Thursday. The time exposure shows the pinkish dust tail extending from the comet's nucleus. Credit: Michael Jaeger

What to do? Set the alarm for the early morning hours when the moon has set and the comet is high in the sky. That’s exactly what I did this morning. At 4 a.m. the comet was almost overhead. When the sleep cleared from my eyes, I sprawled out on the driveway and tried to see it with the naked eye. Yep! There it was. Not bright by any stretch mind you, but it was more obvious than any other time I’ve tried to see it with my original equipment. Through a 15-inch reflecting telescope at low magnification, the big blob glowed a pale emerald green. Tomorrow I’ll post a fresh chart of Hartley 2’s tour dates through Auriga and beyond.

Orion (at right) and other bright winter stars decorate the branches of bare poplar trees in my backyard this morning. Photo: Bob King

I’ve always been an admirer of stars seen sparkling through bare branches, and I’m guessing you’ve noticed this beautiful juxtaposition, too. I’m reminded of Christmas trees and ornaments, or maybe it’s just the bold contrast between tiny, flickering lights and black branches. Whichever or both, I always feel compelled to stop a moment and soak in this vision of Earth and sky touching. When I walked into the backyard to photograph the zodiacal light before dawn, winter’s bright stars were busting through the branches.

Like a tapering cone, the zodiacal light towers in the east this morning just before dawn. You have three mornings left to spot it yourself before moonlight interferes Thursday. Details: 16mm lens at f/2.8, 30-second exposure at ISO 1600. Photo: Bob King

I’ve described the zodiacal light in a previous blog. It’s a tongue-shaped, diffuse glow that extends from the eastern horizon to at least half-way up in the sky just before the start of dawn this month. And it’s BIG. You’ll need dark skies and an open view to the east to see it. The light is sunlight reflecting off comet tail dust and fine debris from asteroid collisions that collects in the plane of the solar system. When the zodiacal light cone is angled high above the horizon muck, as it on moonless fall mornings, it’s at least as bright as the Milky Way. My eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to it this morning – at 5:45 a.m., the light reached all the way from the bottom of Leo up to Gemini, a span of nearly 80 degrees. Yes, the sky was dark, very dark.

The International Space Station passes below Sirius at 6:23 this morning. Details: 35mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 640 and 30-second exposure. Photo: Bob King

The night wouldn’t have been complete without a space station pass. While I put away equipment before hoping to grab a couple hours sleep, up came a star that rivaled Sirius, the sky’s brightest. Even better, it passed not far below that star, so for a time, we had two Siriuses. One stood still, the other had errands to run.

For Duluth and region, there are only a  couple so-so opportunities left in the morning sky before the station re-enters the evening sky on October 26. Tomorrow you can watch it for under a minute in the southeast at 5:16 a.m. On Tuesday morning, we’ll see a similar very brief appearance in the south at 5:42 a.m.

6 Responses

    1. astrobob

      Hi Laurie – I understand your situation. I grew up in the Chicago area and well remember the glowing night sky. It was bad enough then, but now it must be worse. Have you checked out the Chicago Astronomical Society? I wonder if they have observing nights for the public where you can observe and enjoy the sky from a darker locale?

  1. David

    My wife and I were sitting outside Saturday night and saw a small cluster of faint reddish lights, relatively high in the eastern sky. They seemed to move about and twinkle, but the cluster stayed in the same place. There were about 6-8 lights. I have no idea what I was looking at. Can you explain?

    1. astrobob

      Dave, it sure sounds to me like you were looking at the Seven Sisters star cluster also known as the Pleiades. The only thing that puzzles me is the red color, other than that it’s a great match. They’re a fairly tight bunch of stars high up in the east during the late evening. Usually between 6-8 stars are visible.

    1. astrobob

      Thank you Miss Becky – glad you like the photos. I love shooting stuff at night. I’d do more if I didn’t have to sleep and work!

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