Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Tricks and Treats in the Sky

Tricks and Treats in the Sky
by Dave Adalian

When little witches, ghosts and evil things that tarry in dark places go abroad this Hallowe’en, treats better than those in plastic wrappers await trick-o-treaters who turn their eyes skyward.

If they can find a clear view west as they go from door to door, those who come out early on Oct. 31--just a few minutes after sundown--might catch a view of Venus shining low on the horizon as the Evening Star.

Venus climbs higher off the horizon each night during autumn, reaching its highest point near winter’s end then sinking back into the west in spring. Look for Mercury to join Venus in time for Christmas.

A Moon only a few hours shy of first quarter will be due south at sunset on the last day of this month, haunting the dim, V-shaped constellation Capricornus, the Sea Goat. East of the Moon, a lingering Mars holds only about half the luster it showed back in August. Still, it shines brighter now than everything else but the Moon.

Moving east and growing larger night-by-night, the Moon passes Mars on Nov. 2-3 and slips into Aquarius, the Water Bearer, another indistinct and sprawling constellation of the fall Zodiac. The only bright star there is Fomalhaut (FOAM-A-LOW), appearing yellowish-white near the horizon below Mars.

The Moon grows to full the night of Nov. 8, but when it comes up that evening it might not be there to be seen. The second total lunar eclipse of 2003 begins at 3:23 p.m. that Saturday, well before the Moon rises here in the West. But, totality, when the entire disk of the Moon is shrouded by the darkest part of Earth’s shadow, doesn’t happen until 5:06 p.m., just as the Moon is rising here.

For the first half hour of its journey across the sky, the Moon will be hidden. Eclipsed moons are notorious for their strange colors. Last May’s seemed to be pale and washed out. How will this one compare? Perhaps orange or bloody red or something more like the color of fading Mars.

Pay attention to the shape of the Earth’s shadow as the Moon emerges, beginning around 5:31 p.m. Though fuzzy at the edges, Earth’s shadow is distinctly round, proof positive if you need it we live on a sphere.

By 8:15, October’s Frost Moon will be shining bright again during the rest of a long autumn night.

Clear skies.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on Oct. 21, 2003.