Venus and Saturn, a meteor shower and supermoon light up the October sky

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The night sky is active this month with three planets in the southwestern evening sky, a meteor shower and a supermoon.

Beginning in the west, bright Venus cuts through evening twilight just after sunset. Seeing our closest neighbor requires a clear western horizon. Venus doesn't gain any height this month but rather slides horizontally toward the south each evening. By month's end its sideways migration carries it to the southwestern sky.

Higher up and further south sits the ringed planet Saturn. This yellow jewel is fainter than Venus but still one of the brightest objects in this region of the sky. On Wednesday a thin waxing crescent moon hangs slightly above and to the right of Saturn. Directly below Saturn, look for the bright reddish star Antares. Throughout the month, Saturn moves westward every evening until by Oct. 27, Saturn lies directly above Venus.

Further to the south, observers can find bright red Mars. At month's onset, Saturn sits almost directly centered between Mars and Venus. Observers can trace an imaginary arc between the planets. Mars also sits in the direction of the dense galactic center of the Milky Way. For those with binoculars, aiming them at Mars also reveals wispy nebulae and dense star clusters.

The night of Oct. 20 and morning of Oct. 21 is the peak of the Orionids Meteor Shower. As earth passes through the leftover tail of Comet Halley, the Orionids can deliver up to 20 meteors per hour. The best viewing time is after midnight. Meteors tend to emanate from the constellation Orion, but can be seen anywhere in the sky.

Lastly, if the full moon of Oct. 16 seems especially big and bright, that's because it is. This month's full moon is a supermoon, meaning it is bigger and brighter than usual. That's because the moon's orbit is elliptical and sometimes the moon is closer than other times. This month finds the moon at its closest approach and accounts for the Supermoon.

Brad Nuest is a space science educator at the Cosmosphere. Email: bradn@cosmo.org.