The crisp, cool nights of October are a great time for stargazing. Get out and see what is up there before the nights are cold and you are wading around in knee deep snow.
High in the west, three bright stars define the Summer Triangle. The highest above the horizon is Deneb, the head of the Northern Cross, also known as Cygnus, the Swan. If you are in a dark spot with no moon washing out the stars, you should be able to see the Milky Way running vertically right through that cross.
The other two stars of the triangle are Vega, below the cross, and Altair, below and to the left. These two are close neighbors of our Sun unlike Deneb, which is way out there in the depths of the cosmos.
The three stars of the Summer Triangle are in three separate constellations which represent birds now or in the past. Ancient stargazers thought they were the Stymphalian Birds, voracious creatures which lived in a swamp in Greece. Their beaks and feathers were razor sharp and could cut you to pieces in a hurry. If you survived those formidable weapons, the birds could even lob globs of poisonous dung at you. Luckily, the hero Hercules killed them so we do not have to worry about them today.
Saturn and beyond
Look low in the south for the planet Saturn shining a not-too-bright yellow and the star Fomalhaut close by. Saturn is a gem in a small telescope with its spectacular rings, which never fail to delight a budding astronomer. Those rings span a much greater distance than the diameter of the Earth. Our little planet is only 8,000 miles in width, whereas those rings are about 175,000 miles across. But get this: They are only 30 feet thick!
Not too far from Saturn, if you can see low into the south, a fairly bright star with the strange name Fomalhaut lurks in an otherwise empty piece of the sky. The curious name means “The Mouth of the Fish,” and it is the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. It is a close neighbor of ours at only 25 light years away.
That translates into 150 trillion miles, which does not sound so close. Astronomers used to think Fomalhaut had a planet going around it, but now realize it is just a cloud of debris, which is too bad since maybe we could check it out and see if anyone is living there. Of course, the problem is it would take hundreds of thousands of years to get there in one of our fastest rocket ships.
If you are up late look for brilliant Jupiter in the southeast steadily shining near the Pleiades star cluster. Jupiter too makes a fine object for a small telescope with four moons easily visible.
Just before dawn Venus, the brightest thing in the sky besides the Sun and the Moon, dominates the scene. To the right of Venus look for Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, and then Orion, the brightest constellation of winter.
What else is up there? Plenty, and I will tell you about it next time.