We had the Autumnal Equinox at the end of last month and with it comes ever shorter days and longer nights, making it ideal for stargazing. Although there are not too many bright stars in the lower half of the sky, there is much to see higher up, with the Great Square of Pegasus entering our southern night sky. There’s also a chance of seeing some shooting stars, with the peak of the Draconids Meteor Shower on the night of 8/9 October and the peak of the Orionids meteor shower on the night of 21/22 October. Finally, there will be a partial solar eclipse on the morning of the 25th of October 2022.
This month, the sun sets around 6:30 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 8:00 pm onwards. Even though we are now into Autumn, the Summer Triangle, which is made up of the three bright stars of Vega, Altair and Deneb, is still visible and can be used to navigate your way around the night sky. Start off by finding Vega, a really bright white star which will be high up in the sky to the South-West. Just face south, look up, then look right and you will find it. Next is Altair, which you will find below Vega, halfway down towards the horizon and slightly to the left. Finally, there is Deneb, which will be almost directly above Altair and above and to the left of Vega.
The Milky Way, which has dominated the night sky over the last couple of months can still be seen during the early part of the night. Just trace a line down from Deneb, through Altair and you should be able to make out its band of stars as it flows down to the horizon, with the last of its cloudy core visible and to the right of Saturn as it sits above the southern horizon.
At the moment there are not many bright stars in the lower part of the southern sky, so if you are in an area with light-pollution, look higher up and you should be able to pick out some constellations. Below Vega, you will see the 4 other main stars that make up the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre). These form a small parallelogram and make up the body of the Lyre – the sky’s only musical instrument.
Finally, looking at Altair, you will find the constellation of Aquila (the Eagle) because Altair is its brightest star. Altair also has outstretched wings, though they are not as obvious at the wings of Cygnus. In between these two flying birds is the constellation of Sagitta (the Arrow), a dim but distinctive shape which is reasonably easy to pick out. Another small but easily seen constellation called Delphinus (the Dolphin) is nearby and it also looks like what it’s meant to be.
If you look high up and over to the South-East, you’ll find the Square of Pegasus sitting above a very bright shining Jupiter. This asterism is made up of 4 stars of nearly equal brightness in a large square pattern and the stars are Scheat, Alpheratz, Markab and Algenib. The constellation of Pegasus represents the Flying Horse of Greek mythology and the Square marks the horse’s body. You may find it difficult to make out the horse because it is upside down and the constellation represents only the top half of its body and its head. However, you may be able to pick out Enif, the constellation’s brightest star which will be about halfway between the bottom right of the Square and Altair. Enif is an orange supergiant star that is 5,000 times brighter than the Sun and it represents the horse’s nose.
If you look north, you’ll see the same stars as you would in any other month, but their orientation varies from month to month. In October the familiar Plough asterism, which many people will recognise, is moving from the north-west to the north. Follow its two right-hand stars upward, veer a little bit to the right and you’ll find Polaris, the Pole Star. If you look over to the north-east you can see Capella. It is a yellow giant star, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer), the sixth-brightest star in the night sky, and the third-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega.
At the very start of the month the Moon is a crescent in the south-west after sunset because a new Moon was on 25 September. The first quarter Moon (a half moon) follows on 3 October. On 5 October, you will find it sitting just below Saturn over in the southeast darkness falls.
This full Moon is called the Hunter’s Moon because traditionally, people in the Northern Hemisphere spent the month of October preparing for the coming winter by hunting, slaughtering and preserving meats for use as food. Like the last month’s Harvest Moon, the Hunter's Moon is also particularly bright and long in the sky, giving hunters the opportunity to stalk prey at night. Other names include the travel moon and the dying grass moon.
On 12 October the Moon will be near the Pleiades while on 13 October it will be near Aldebaran. On 14 October you will find it sitting above Mars from around 9:00 pm as this is when they both will have risen above the north-eastern horizon.
The last quarter Moon is on 17 October, when you will see it traversing the night sky just below and to the left of Castor and Pollux, the two bright stars in Gemini.
There is a new Moon (no moon) on 25 October and a few days later in the evenings of 28 and 29 October, you should be able to pick out the thinnest of crescent moons sitting close to south to southwest horizon as darkness falls.
This month, the first planet you will see as darkness falls will be Jupiter. It was at its opposition and closest point to Earth for this year on 26 September. This means that it is shining very brightly at the moment and will be the first thing you see in the night sky as darkness falls. You will find it over in the east to southeast and, if you look at it through binoculars or a telescope, you will see some tiny starry objects on either side of it. These are its brightest and largest moons. They are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and are known as the Galilean moons. If you watch them on different nights, you will notice that they change position as they circle the mighty gas giant planet.
Saturn is well over to the right of Jupiter, sitting in the southern night sky and shining a lot less brightly. However, if you look at it with binoculars or a telescope that magnify by about 40 or 50 times, you be able to see its famous rings and its biggest moons. The largest moon, Titan, is enormous. In fact, it’s 40% more massive than the planet Mercury and 80% more massive than our own moon.
Not too far to the right of Jupiter, lies Neptune. However, this most distant planet will be very faint, so you will need a telescope to see it.
Uranus rises at about 7:00 pm in the northeast and you may be able to see it with the naked eye. However, you will stand a much better chance of seeing it with binoculars or a telescope.
Mars rises in the northeast at about 9:00 pm and will spend the night traversing the sky between the horns of Taurus (the Bull), which are to the left of Aldebaran, the red eye of the Bull. Given their proximity, you could look at them both through a telescope and see how their red hues compare.
At the moment, Mercury and Venus are too close to the Sun to be seen.
The Orionid meteors fly each year between about October 2 to November 7 and are caused by debris from Halley’s Comet smashing into the Earth’s atmosphere. You can spot them from the start of the month, but you can see the greatest number at meteor shower’s peak on the night of 21-22 October.
In a good year, with little or no Moon, you can expect to see about 10-20 meteors/hour at the peak. This will be the case this year because there will be a new Moon, i.e. no Moon on 25 October, meaning that there will be little or no moonlight on the night of the Orionids peak to spoil the show. If you decide to look for meteors then, wait until after 10:00 pm because that’s when their radiant point (the area of the sky where the meteors seem to originate) is above the horizon. You will find it to the top left of Orion as it rises in the east.
When watching for the meteors, give yourself at least an hour of observing time, because they will come in spurts, interspersed with lulls. Also remember that your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night, so don’t rush the process. Patience is the key to maximising your chances of spotting some.
Instead of the Orionids, you could watch for the Draconid meteors at nightfall and early evening on October 8, but this year the Moon will be almost full then, meaning that the moonlight will drown out all but the brightest of the shooting stars. If you do decide to look, you’ll find the radiant point for the Draconid meteor shower a little bit to the right of Vega and right next to the head of the constellation Draco the Dragon.
The Draconid shower is a real oddity, in that the radiant point stands highest in the sky as darkness falls. That means that unlike many meteor showers, more Draconids are likely to fly in the evening hours than in the morning hours after midnight. Also, this shower is known as “a Sleeper” because in most years it produces only a handful of meteors per hour. However, do look out for them because the Draconids’ unpredictable nature, as seen in both 1933 and 1946, means that you could enjoy thousands of meteors in only one hour.
Partial Solar Eclipse
On the morning of the 25th of October 2022, a partial solar eclipse will be visible from the United Kingdom and across most of Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, and western Asia.
A partial solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun when viewed from Earth. Your location depends on how much of the Moon will visibly block the Sun. For example, in North-East Scotland, approximately 35% of the Sun will be covered, dropping to less than 20% in Southern England.
It will be visible in the UK from approximately 10:00 am to 11:50 am and the time of the maximum eclipse, where the Moon covers most of the Sun, will be approximately 10:57 am, with the times varying by a minute or so, depending on how far north or south you are.
As the Moon will not fully cover the Sun (in which case it would be a total solar eclipse), the Sun will be incredibly bright and could cause damage to eyesight if viewed without precaution. Therefore, you will require visual aid to see this event safely, for example, a pair of eclipse glasses or a telescope fitted with a white light filter.