Oct 04

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – October, 2015

Good Morning, Planets

I hope you were not deterred by the cloudy skies last Sunday because it cleared up just in time to enjoy the total lunar eclipse. The astronomy club viewing at Kollen park was both enjoyable and informative. Visitors were able to view the eclipsed Moon through a telescope and then learn about the event from club members who were on hand to answer questions. This was a special eclipse, being the last of the current tetrad as well as occuring when the Moon was at its closest point to Earth in its orbit – a “supermoon”. All these conditions will not occur together again until 2033.

I often write about observing the planets and Moon because they are usually bright, easy to find and often move noticibly from night to night. Unfortunately, this month it will be morning to morning.

You may recall the close encounter between Venus and Jupiter last June. This month they put on a similar show as they again move gradually toward each other until, on October 25, they will only be separated by the width of two full Moons. Only problem . . . you will have to get out an hour before sunrise to see them. It’s not as bad as it sounds, however, since the Sun rises around 8 a.m. And it will be a very cool sight, especially on October 8 – 10 when the two bright planets, although not nearly as close together as later in the month, will be joined by a thin crescent Moon. Plus, the dim planet Mars will be in the same field of view. Look toward the eastern horizon anytime after 6 a.m.

In other news, we’ve had some pretty spectacular space missions this year, flying past Pluto for the first time, orbitting an asteroid and landing on a comet to name a few. But lost in the background radiation is a pioneering spacecraft, born in the last century, tempered by its long journey, and disciplined by a never ending quest for knowledge. It’s called Cassini.

Launched eighteen years ago next month, Cassini is a flagship class spacecraft, the largest and most complex ever built by NASA, and the first to orbit Saturn when it arrived in 2004. It also carried the Huygens probe, a lander that touched down on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in 2005. This in itself is an amazing accomplishment, being the first landing of any kind in the outer solar system.

But Cassini has made many exciting discoveries in the past decade. During its more than 200 orbits, it has studied features in the rings, a hurricane on Saturn, lakes of hydrocarbons on Titan, and geysers of ice on the moon Iapetus. Its latest discovery may be the most intriguing – below the icy crust of the moon Enceladus is a water ocean extending around the entire globe. The mission will continue until 2017, and I am sure there are many more exciting discoveries to be made up in the sky.