By David Huestis, Historian, Skyscrapers, Inc.
Orionid Meteor Shower, Distant Planets and Other Sky Events
The most important astronomical news I have for you this month concerns the August 21 solar eclipse. Many folks visited the local libraries and Seagrave Observatory to successfully observe the partial eclipse with telescopes and hundreds of solar eclipse glasses. Clouds did interfere somewhat depending upon one’s location throughout the state, but I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from individuals who attended these programs.
The news media, both print and broadcast, did an excellent job of covering the event from Seagrave Observatory. The Woonsocket Call published a great follow-up article the following day, and WPRI 12’s T.J. Del Santo did a segment from Seagrave on eclipse day. Though I wish I could have been a part of the Rhode Island experience, my wife and I observed two minutes and 35.9 seconds of totality from Adams, Tennessee. This was my third successful total eclipse. And it was spectacular. I hope to write a special column soon about our adventure. The journey to the event began well before our drive into the shadow zone.
I must also give many thanks to my brother Glen for setting up his telescope on the Bryant campus in my absence. Many people stopped by to observe the partial phases safely through his scope and with the eclipse glasses I provided. A good time was had by all.
Now we start planning for the 2024 total solar eclipse!
But let’s not rush things. There are many other astronomical events to observe during the rest of the year. So let’s start with October. For you early risers during twilight on the morning of the 5th look due east to see brilliant Venus. However, binoculars or a small telescope will reveal a much dimmer Mars towards the lower right. This event is called a planetary conjunction. Venus and Mars will be about a half-moon diameter apart. This is the closest they’ve been since 1995. Through a telescope Venus will appear in a gibbous phase, and no detail will be discernible on Mars’ small disk.
As dawn begins on the 15th, a waning crescent Moon will occult (pass in front of) Leo’s brightest star Regulus. Here in Rhode Island blue-white Regulus (21st brightest star in our sky) will disappear behind the sunlit limb (left) of the Moon at approximately 5:49 a.m. While binoculars can provide a better view than one’s eyes alone, a telescope and medium magnification will enhance the experience as the star slowly winks out behind the lunar profile. Regulus will reappear along the Moon’s dark limb at approximately 6:45 a.m. Sunrise is around 6:58 a.m.
If you have not observed Saturn this season, then by all means get yourself to a telescope to do so. You’ve only got another month or so to view this beautiful ringed-world. And knowing how lousy the weather can be around southern New England, I would suggest visiting any of the local observatories during their public observing nights the next clear night they are open. You don’t want to miss the magnificent rings that are currently tilted almost 27 degrees to our line of sight, allowing great detail to be seen.
And don’t neglect the more distant worlds of Uranus and Neptune during October as well. On the 19th Uranus will be at its closest to the Earth for this year—about 1,760,000,000 miles. That’s farther than Westerly for you northern Rhode Island stargazers!
The August Perseid meteor shower was somewhat hampered by the Moon, and for me the clouds rolled in to spoil the view sometime before the midnight hour. However, as soon as I stepped outside I saw a fairly bright meteor blaze across the sky. October provides us another opportunity to watch for shooting stars. On the night of the 20-21, the Orionid meteor shower peaks. Conditions will be ideal, as a waxing crescent Moon, only 1 day past New Moon, will set soon after the Sun. This scenario will leave a dark sky for the entire night, letting us observe as many meteors as possible. All you’ll have to do to maximize your viewing experience is to find a suitable location well away from light pollution.
The Orionid meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through the remnants of Halley’s Comet. The shower is named for Orion, the constellation from where the meteors appear to radiate. Orion rises around 10:00 p.m. The radiant point is not far from the bright red super giant star Betelgeuse. One can expect about 20 or so yellow and green meteors per hour between midnight and dawn’s early light. The Orionid meteors disintegrate in our atmosphere around 41.6 miles per second, and they are also noted for producing fireballs that create persistent dust trains as they blaze across the sky. And with moonlight not affecting the shower’s performance this year, we can only hope the weather cooperates for this shooting star display. Orion can be found high in the southeast sky at 3:00 a.m. (See accompanying star map.)
In conclusion, please remember that the local observatories are open for you to explore the beauty of our universe. Be sure to check their respective websites for public observing schedules and closures. If you step outside your home and note that it is overcast/rainy, then it is likely the observatories will be closed for the evening. Seagrave Memorial Observatory (http://www.theskyscrapers.org) in North Scituate is open every clear Saturday night. (Note: Seagrave will be closed on October 14 due to our annual AstroAssembly convention.) Ladd Observatory (http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Physics/Ladd/) in Providence is open every Tuesday night. The Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory at the CCRI Knight Campus in Warwick (http://www.ccri.edu/physics/observatory.htm) is open every clear Wednesday night. And our good friends down at Frosty Drew Observatory (http://frostydrew.org) in Charlestown open every clear Friday night.
Keep your eyes to the skies.