In The Sky This Month – October 2009

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of October 2009. Jupiter continues its reign as not only king of the planets but king of the evening sky. October also brings the Orionids, one of the year’s better meteor showers.

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment and I’ll post them on the blog.

Planets

Jupiter – Jupiter continues to dominate the evening sky. Based on the comments left on this blog, many people have been noticing Jupiter in the southeast sky during the evening. At magnitude -2.6, Jupiter is ~11 times brighter than the brightest stars in the sky this month. Of all the planets, only Venus, and on very rare occasions Mars, are brighter.

Jupiter is located high  in the southern sky by the end of dusk for easy observation. As has been the case all year, it is slowly moving through the southern constellation of Capricornus.

Oct 27 – Moon passes 3° from Jupiter

Oct_evening

View of the evening sky around 8pm on Oct 16. Sky chart made with Stellarium planetarium software.

Neptune – For those with a telescope or binoculars and a dark sky, Neptune is located within 1/2 to 3/4 degrees of Jupiter. Jupiter will be a bright magnitude -2.6 while Neptune will be a faint +7.9. That makes Jupiter over ~16,000 times brighter than Neptune. Even Jupiter’s 4 large Galilean moons are about a dozen times brighter than Neptune even though they are much smaller. The big reason for the faintness of Neptune is its distance from both the Earth and Sun. It is roughly 6 times further away from us and the Sun as Jupiter. The distance also explains its apparent small size of 2.3″. A good sized telescope will be required to see Neptune as anything other than a faint star.

Though Neptune wasn’t discovered until 1846, it was actually observed by Galileo on two occasions in 1612 and 1613. Similar to this month’s circumstances, Jupiter was passing very close to Neptune. Galileo observed and recorded Neptune as a star in the vicinity of Jupiter. There is also evidence that he noticed that Neptune had moved but didn’t follow up on it. So when you observe these 2 planets imagine what Galileo must have been thinking nearly 400 years ago.

Uranus – This month Uranus is a month past opposition and still near its maximum in brightness. Uranus is located in western Pisces and is bright enough to be seen in small binoculars at magnitude +5.7 but will still require a telescope in order to see it as anything other than a star (it’s disk is only 3.5″ across).

Mars – Mars can be seen in the eastern sky during the 2nd half of the might. It rises around midnight though it won’t get high enough to clear most trees and building till about 1-2 am. Mars is rapidly brightening from magnitude +0.9 to +0.6, its brightness matching that of many of the brightest stars visible in the morning sky. Mars will continue to brighten as it approaches its opposition on Jan 29 of next year. This month Mars marches through eastern half of the constellation of Gemini into Cancer. By Halloween, the planet will be moving through the Beehive,  a big bright star cluster in Cancer.

Oct 12 – Moon within 1.1° of Mars

Venus – Venus rises an hour before dawn. When it is visible it is easily the brightest “star” in the sky. It was at its highest in the morning sky back in August and is continuing its slow crawl lower. For binocular and telescope users, Venus will appear nearly full and is much smaller than it appeared this spring (now 11″ across versus 50″ last spring).

Oct 13 – Saturn and Venus within 0.5° of each other
Oct 16
– Moon passes 6° from Venus

Mercury – Mercury puts on its best morning show of the year for northern observers. Below the equator, this is one of Mercury’s worst displays and probably worth skipping. For the 1st 3 weeks of the month, Mercury will be visible about 30 minutes before the start of dawn in the evening sky. The dates below highlight some of the best mornings to observe Mercury.

Oct 6 – Mercury furthest above eastern horizon at dawn
Oct 8 – Saturn and Mercury within 0.3° of each
Oct 17 – Moon and Mercury within 7° of each other

Saturn – After spending the last month or so too close to the Sun to be seen, Saturn is once again visible. Located in Virgo at magnitude +1.0, Virgo only rises right before the start of dawn. For those of you lucky enough to be up every morning and have access to a clear eastern horizon, October will provide a month long show as Venus, Mercury and Saturn dance among themselves. Telescope users should note that Saturn’s rings are still close to edge-on.

Oct 8 – Saturn and Mercury within 0.3° of each
Oct 13 – Saturn and Venus within 0.5° of each other
Oct 16 – Moon and Saturn within 6° of each other

Meteors

October hosts one of the best meteor showers of the year in the Orionids. In addition, the background rate of meteors is near an annual high. The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December (really through the 1st week of January) have high rates with many major showers.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During September, 12 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Orionids (ORI) [Max Date = Oct 22, Max Rate = ~20-70 per hour]

The Orionids are one of the most reliable and productive showers of the year. Another point in their favor, is there high level of activity over the course of about 5 nights. This gives ample opportunity to catch a few ORI meteors.

The meteors that make up the Orionid shower were originally released by the one comet everyone has heard of, Comet Halley. Computer simulations of the past movements of Halley and its dust suggest that many of this year’s Orionid meteors were released by Halley between 1265 BC and 910 BC (for some points of reference, the Trojan War took place around 1200 BC and King David ruled around 1000 BC).

The Orionids are usually active from Oct 3 to Nov 11 with a broad peak between Oct 18 and 24. During their peak, rates can be as high as 20-70 meteors per hour. Last year rates reached 39 meteors per hour which is nearly half the rate observed in 2007 (70 per hour). With no Moon in the sky, the sky will be nice and dark this year.

The Orionids appear to come from an area in northern Orion. This area, called the radiant, rises around 10pm local time. It is best to wait till the radiant is high in the sky before looking for meteors (say 1am). The radiant is highest around 3:30am which is the best time to look. As you can see on the sky chart, the Moon is almost on top of the radiant. Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky so you don’t have to look at the radiant.

More can be found at an earlier Orionid posting.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Starting this month, info on most of the minor showers will be provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered nearly 3 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn.

The comet reached perihelion at a rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. Because of its large perihelion distance, the comet will only slowly move away from the Sun and, though it will slowly fade, it should remain bright enough to be seen in modest sized backyard telescopes this month.

At mid-month, the comet is 3.3 AU from the Sun and 3.2 AU from Earth. Though observed as bright as magnitude ~8.2 it is now around magnitude 8.8.  It is moving southeast while paralleling the summer Milky Way. This month the comet can be found in southern Aquila and is well placed for evening observing.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet 88P/Howell

P/Howell is another evening comet and should be just as bright as C/Christensen. Howell is a short-period comet and takes only 5.49 years to orbit the Sun. Ellen Howell was a student at CalTech when she found the comet on photographic plates taken on 1981 August 29 with the 48″ Palomar schmidt.

In 1981 the comet was on a orbit that never brought it closer to the Sun than 1.62 AU (perihelion distance). As a result, it never got very bright. A relatively close approach to Jupiter in 1990 changed its perihelion distance to 1.40 AU. Further perturbations by Jupiter have decreased its perihelion distance to 1.36 AU. The closer perihelion distance allows the comet to get bright enough for small backyard telescopes.

This year the perihelion occurs on Oct 12 when it will shine at ~9.0 magnitude or maybe even a little brighter. The comet is located low in the southwest sky after dusk where it will start the month in the constellation of Scorpius before traversing Ophiuchus and ending the month in Sagittarius. At mid-month P/Howell will be 1.36 AU from the Sun and 1.65 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Howell can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet 217P/LINEAR

217P/LINEAR is also a short-period comet though it takes a little longer than Howell to circle the Sun, 7.83 years versus 5.49 years. P/LINEAR also comes closer to the Sun with perihelion at 1.22 AU from the Sun. The comet is already a month past perihelion which occurred on Sept 8.

P/LINEAR was first observed by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey on 2001 June 21 though it wasn’t until 2001 July 11 that it was recognized as a comet. The 2009 apparition is the first return since the discovery apparition.

Though P/LINEAR and P/Howell have similar perihelion distances, LINEAR is a much fainter (or less active) comet. While Howell is ~9th magnitude at a rather distant 1.65 AU from Earth, P/LINEAR is a little fainter at magnitude ~10.0 though it is much closer (0.61 AU from Earth). This may be the last time to see P/LINEAR in small backyard telescopes until its 2048 return when it will pass within 0.40 AU of Earth. All the returns between 2009 and 2048 will be more distant.

I was able to observe 217P/LINEAR with 30×125 binoculars on the morning of Sept 25. In order to see the comet I had to drive out to a dark site. The comet was a rather non-descript smudge about 1.5′ across and with a brightness of magnitude 10.1.

This month the comet will be visible in the morning sky moving from southern Orion into the faint Milky Way constellation of Monoceros. It should remain at magnitude ~10 for the entire month.

A finder chart for Comet LINEAR can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2007 Q3 (Siding Spring)

After 2 short-period comets, this next comet is of the long-period variety. Comet C/2007 Q3 (Siding Spring) was first seen on 2007 August 25 by Donna Barton of the Siding Spring Survey in Australia. This Oct. 7 the comet will reach its rather distant perihelion at 2.25 AU from the Sun. Unfortunately, the comet and Earth are located on opposite sides of the Sun (a 3.0 AU distance). Still the comet may be observable during the 2nd half of the month right before the start of dawn as a ~9.5 to 10.0 magnitude comet in Leo.

A finder chart for Comet Siding Spring can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(3) Juno

Juno was the 3rd asteroid to be discovered after (1) Ceres and (2) Pallas. It was found by German astronomer Karl Harding on September 1, 1804. With dimensions of 320×267×200 km (192 x 160 x 120 miles) Juno ranks as the 10th largest asteroid in the Main Belt though it is the 2nd largest stony S-type asteroid.

This month it will be moving slowly southwestward in Aquarius. Peak brightness occurred at opposition on Sept. 22 when Juno was as bright as magnitude 7.6. In October it will fade from magnitude 7.8 to 8.4. Twenty degrees or so to the east of Juno is another bright asteroid, (18) Melpomene which is described in its own section.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Juno from Heavens Above.

(18) Melpomene

About 25 degrees to the east of (3) Juno lies another nice asteroid target for small telescopes. (18) Melpomene is located in the constellation of Cetus and is roughly the same brightness as Juno, peaking at magnitude 7.9 on Oct 10 and fading to magnitude  7.9 by month’s end.

Melpomene is another stoney S-type asteroid and similar to Iris was also discovered by John Russel Hind. Found in 1852, it is his 5th of 10 asteroid discoveries.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Iris from Heavens Above.

About Carl Hergenrother
I am a professional astronomer specializing in the study of comets, asteroids and meteors. This blog will focus on my professional and amateur work in this field

36 Responses to In The Sky This Month – October 2009

  1. Teri says:

    East Lansing, MI 10/7/09 @ 9:00 pm. Western horizon, flickering red and green star? Does someone know if it is a star or planet? Quick bright flickering and set on the horizon by 9:45ish pm. It was west but slightly north. Anyone?

    • Carl Hergenrother says:

      Hi Teri,

      Yep, I’ve been seeing it too. It is the star Arcturus which is the 3rd brightest star in the sky after Sirius and Canopus (both of which are only observable in the morning sky, in fact Canopus may be too far south for Michigan). Arcturus is a yellow star but when bright stars are located within 20 or so degrees from the horizon they can appear to change colors.

      Turbulence in the atmosphere causes the star’s light to be “bounced” all over the place. The light of the star is made up of many different colors which all “bounce” around differently. As a result, normally yellow Arcturus can appear to rapidly switch between many different colors when it is close to the horizon.

      Hope that helps,
      – Carl

  2. David says:

    Did anyone see a very bright shooting star last night< October 7, 2009. It was the most lasting ( 4 seconds or so ) and brightest I had ever seen. It was app. 8 pm when it shot across the sky. Would it be a meteor? October is a month to see them.

  3. Ricky says:

    Did any one see a big bright white light or object in the southern Californa USA sky,traveling east to west southern sky on october11,2009 at app. 10:45 pm pacific standard time

    • sLaPpYjO says:

      Did any one see a big bright white light or object in the southern Californa USA sky,traveling east to west southern sky on october11,2009 at app. 10:45 pm pacific standard time
      NONONONNOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!
      i am aw350m3 wat bout u? r u high?

  4. sLaPpYjO says:

    soz bout high bit mate it was li’l bro

  5. sLaPpYjO says:

    i have not been able to see moon in AUS for last few weeks

  6. Marlena says:

    A few friends & i were sat in our horses field tonight (13th of Oct,09) & we saw a really bright light falling with a slight blue & yellow flame behind it, this was in the north of germany, just wondering if anyone else saw it, was around 18:45??

  7. Jennifer Wieda Perry says:

    This morning we saw a bright yellow light in the Easten sky around 0630. Looking at this through the telescope, it had black dots and undefined edges at different times. The object was round and yellow. We were able to watch it move Southeast for about 40 minutes. Does anyone know what this is?

  8. Christopher says:

    Did anyone see a really bright white circular light in the sky at 6:30PM in the Southwest sky over Dimmitt, Texas? It was at least 50 times the size as Jupiter is seen in the sky. After several minutes it appeared to rotate into an oval shape, shrink down to a small planet shape, travel down a ways towards a red planet shape object and then both disappeared.

    • Mark says:

      Yes I saw it! Im a truck driver and a guy came over the CB and asked if he was seein things. I pulled over right away 2 find out what the hell it was. After watching it a peice had shot off of it like an explosion. It was definetly weird! Then the rest just shrank then it was gone. I was in TX at the time also.

  9. mathew says:

    did anyone one see two objects moving westerly in unision exactly like a satellite but it was pulsating rings of light i have neve seen this before i know it sounds crazy but me and my entie family a sceptics and none of us could explain what we saw last night it terrified and awed us.

    • Carl Hergenrother says:

      Hi Matthew,

      Your family weren’t the only people who saw this. A large number of sightings were made across Europe of the same event. Turns out it was a fuel dump from a recent satellite launch. At 16:12 GMT an Atlas V rocket was launched from Vandenberg AF base in California carrying the DMSP F18 weather satellite. Specifically it was a fuel dump from the Centaur upper stage used to place the satellite in its proper orbit. Excess fuel is “dumped” or vented into space in order to prevent any future explosions that will litter space.

      Here’s a good description from an observer in Germany.
      http://www.satobs.org/seesat/Oct-2009/0105.html

      Thanks for writing.
      – Carl

  10. mathew says:

    okay but then what was following it there was something right behind it following it from a certain distance i mean if it dropped the one fuel tank i dont think it would keep the same trajectory

  11. mathew says:

    have any photos been posted yet?

  12. Chelsea says:

    Last Saturday night October 17th 2009 i was up north in Randall Minnesota with my uncle and my dad and its pitch black dark out were out deer hunting.. and me and my dad were faced towards my un cle, and all of a sudden my uncle lights up like someone aimed a spot light at him and everything was light up as he lighted up he yelled look at the sky! we looked and me my dad and my uncle saw something a comet or asteroid or whatever the name for it would be and it was huge it was about 12ft from the ground and about 45ft away from us it was on fire or something but the color of it was light green kinda light blueish and the hair stood up on the back of our necks i really hope we werent the only ones who saw that but it looked like the size of a basketball but a little bit bigger but who knows how far away it was from us but it was insane. i hope someone researchers the town and finds it because it was phenominal!

    • Carl Hergenrother says:

      Hi Chelsea,

      It appears that you saw a fireball (which is just another name for a very bright meteor). According to the Fireball Page at the American Meteor Society, there were 3 other reports of a brilliant greenish fireball from Minnesota and Iowa. Those reports place the time of the event at ~8:50 pm CDT. Does that match the time you saw your fireball?

      It may seem unbelievable but the fireball was very far away. Even though it may appear to be very close, it was probably at an altitude of 30-50 miles up, moving at ~8-12 miles per second.

      Thanks for writing,
      – Carl

  13. Kelly says:

    Hi Matthew,
    Myself, my husband and neighbour saw exactly the same thing on th 19.10.09! I am based in Cape Town South Africa, and we saw the two objects with the pulsating light rings (every 30s or so) moving through the sky around 9pm our time.
    I have looked at the images of the rocket fuel dump, and this is NOT what i saw!
    I think we need a better explanation…..

    • Carl Hergenrother says:

      Hi Kelly,

      It does appear that the fuel dump looked very different from South Africa. Perhaps this is because the dump was just starting over SA while it was already nearing its end when it traveled over Europe.

      Check out these images taken from South Africa at http://www.astronomical.co.za/gallery.htm .

      I wish someone had taken a movie of the event. From the pictures, it does look like a bunch of smoke rings being “puffed” out from the satellite. Note, many of the images are long exposures so the satellites and rings are trailed. But you can tell that the rings are expanding since the “clouds” are growing throughout the exposures (which are probably only a few seconds long).

      Hope this helps and looks more like what you saw,
      – Carl

    • Priscilla Cushman says:

      The Oct 17 Minnesota sighting sounds more like ball lightning, but the Oct 18 (Sunday night around 9 pm) sighting is definitely the fuel dump. Other records of similar launches saw similar night sky shows. We watched the entire thing from France on a cloudless night and the posted photos/movies do not do it justice. Why didn’t I take a movie!!!! I was just standing there with my mouth open instead. The pulsating rings are the part I cannot understand, but perhaps they really are the previous puff of fuel before the full dump, spread out and traveling with the rocket and experiencing different angles of reflection from the sun below the horizon. All I know is that the two “comets” were really bright and so you could see both the ejected fuel cloud and the rocket still firing and the double rings.

      AWESOME! (but, of course, it is not really a “weather” satellite, is it…)

    • Carl Hergenrother says:

      Priscilla,

      The best summary of the story so far can be found here: http://portaltotheuniverse.org/news/view/30092/ .

      After delivering the weather satellite to orbit, a number of experiments were conducted with the Centaur upper stage rocket.

      – Carl

    • Martin says:

      Saw the same thing from Montegue!!! Also looking for some good pictures, as I didn’t get any. Please mail me
      martin.lauritzen@hotmail.com

  14. Scott says:

    I was up north of Brainard, MN October 17 camping. There were several of us sitting around the camp fire and saw the big bright light go overhead from east to west. Someone mentioned around 8:50pm, that would be the light we saw. It lit up the entire area. Almost like someone shot a flare in the sky. It was an incredible sight.

  15. Linda says:

    I’m in Pembroke, MA, USA and this morning at about 6:40 I was looking up and saw what I would describe as a shooting blob as opposed to a shooting star. It was much brighter since it was a blob, and much slower than a shooting star and faded out in about 2 to 3 seconds. I guess it’s not as exciting as a fireball but I loved it.

  16. Amanda says:

    I’m directionally challenged … but yesterday morning and this morning, I noticed a bright ‘star’ or planet? Looks like two stars together or a tiny crescent moon with a star in the middle of it? It does twinkle a bit. I’ve googled and can not figure out what I’m seeing. I’m in Arizona and I notice it when I wake up at 6 a.m. Does anyone know what this is? I did notice some colors yesterday – but could be because I was staring at it for so long.

  17. Cristhian says:

    I’m from New York City, and on October 22nd at around 9pm I saw a huge light which at the moment I and three other thought it was the moon. But this object was on the south west side and the moon comes out on the east. The object was the size of about half a moon and was not bright, it was more like a dull light. After a few minutes it started to disappear from the bottom up until there was only a bright light to see and then it was gone!…I still can’t explain what it was but it was a good experience and I’m trying to see if anyone else saw this aside from us. Thank you.

  18. mark says:

    Can anyone help? we were driving at about 8.30pm in Knysna in the Cape region of South Africa when we saw what looked like a very brigh, very fast star falling. did anyone else see it: was it a shooting star?

  19. Rose says:

    hi. i’m n the hills in clovis, ca, looking to the east, slightly southeast. there is a very bright star, much bigger thank the rest, and much, much brighter. it pulsates, and looks red. anyone else see or know what it is?

  20. Mr. and Mrs. WTF was that? says:

    hello, we live in bolingbrook il. and last night at approx.10:30pm,Oct. 30, 2009, we saw a green light flashing in the sky, it flashed three times, lit up a nice portion of the sky and it made the street lamps dim out. Did anyone else experience this, or any other unexplainable phoenomena in this area, or anywhere else around this time???

  21. Corinna says:

    I live in Vancouver, BC and on Oct. 31 between 8:30 and 9 pm a bunch of people saw a bright orange light in the sky traveling from west to east at a good pace. Any idea what it was?

    • sniffa says:

      no but i seen strange lights in the sky on november 3rd red blue and orange it just stood still for hours the colors kept changing

    • sniffa says:

      alsmost looked like sparks were flying from it when i looked at it with the binoculars very strange yet interesting

  22. Rich says:

    Can someone tell me what planet traverses the sun on LASCO 2 and LASCO 3 movies on SOHO at the moment (from November 3rd 2009 onwards) or if it is between some kind of filter and the sun. Seems really really bright and traverses from right to left very bright. Only on the movies and not the stills. I have downloaded movies.

    • Carl Hergenrother says:

      Hi Rich,

      That would be Mercury which passed superior conjunction with the Sun (on the other side of the Sun from the Earth) on November 5 at 8:00 UT. Mercury is should continue to move to the east (left) of the Sun over the next few days as it moves into the evening sky.

      – Carl

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