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October 4, 2010

Starline: October's skies

— At the beginning of October you can just pick out bright Venus setting in the southwest just after the sunset. As October progresses Venus will disappear from the evening sky but by the end of the month Venus will reappear rising minutes before the sun as Lucifer, the morning star. Yes, Lucifer meaning the light-bearer, is the name sometimes given to Venus as the morning star. Lucifer rising the morning of Halloween sounds appropriate.

October features two meteor showers: the Draconids, a weak shower early in the month and the Orionids, a rich shower later in the month.  Even though the Draconids is a weak shower it has some advantages over the Orionids this October. The Draconids peak October 7-8 in the northern sky during the evening hours-not during the morning hours that is usual for showers meteors. Also the moon is near new phase during the Draconid shower so the sky will be dark and faint meteors will be visible. The Draconids is a weak shower but occasionally it produces meteor storms with hundreds of meteors per hour! The last storm occurred in 1998 and we are getting close to the next predicted storm that is expected to be in 2011.   The Orionid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of October 21. This rich shower is known for fast meteors that stream from the direction of the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. Unfortunately this year the full moon, the hunter’s moon, occurs October 23 so that only the brightest Orionid meteors will be visible.

If you have a clear southern horizon, October is a good time to look for Fomalhaut, “the lonely star of autumn”.  Fomalhaut, meaning the mouth of the fish, is described as lonely because it is a bright star all alone, low in the southern sky. Fomalhaut rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest and is never higher than about 16 degrees above the horizon in Mankato. Early in October look for Fomalhaut low in the sky nearly due south from about 10:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. The first planet directly imaged around a star other than the sun was Fomalhaut b, a planet discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting the star Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut b is a Jupiter- sized planet orbiting in a disk of dust at a distance of about three times the distance of Pluto in the solar system.

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