Jimmy Westlake: A guided tour of the Halloween sky
Steamboat Springs — All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, marks the midpoint of the season of autumn in the northern hemisphere, halfway between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice. As such, it is one of our cross-quarter days, along with Ground Hog Day (Feb. 2), May Day (May 1) and Lammas Day (Aug. 1).
This Halloween, while you are out trick-or-treating, take a moment to look up at the stars overhead. Here’s a quick, guided tour of the Halloween sky.
In the northwest, the Big Dipper sits like a frying pan on the stove. Follow the curved arc of its handle to find the twinkling pumpkin-orange star Arcturus, low on the western horizon. Follow a line through the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl upward to locate the North Star, Polaris.
High up overhead, look for the three brightest stars you can see. These are the three corners of the Summer Triangle — Vega, Deneb and Altair. Vega is the brightest. First visible in our early summer sky, the Summer Triangle hangs on through most of the fall.
Low in the southwest, look for the teapot-shaped outline of Sagittarius, the Archer. The misty star clouds of the Milky Way are billowing straight up out of the teapot’s spout, like so much steam.
In the southeastern sky, the brightest star is Fomalhaut, the mouth of the Southern Fish. There are no other bright stars in this part of the sky so Fomalhaut is easy to identify.
Now, look halfway up to the zenith in the eastern sky. There, the four bright stars of the sideways Great Square of Pegasus look more like a Great Diamond in the sky.
The “W” shaped outline of Cassiopeia’s Chair is about halfway up in the northeastern sky. Straight down below the “W,” look for the bright lemon-yellow star Capella flashing just over the mountains. With a little luck, you might also spot the glittering Pleiades or “Subaru” star cluster, also rising over the mountains to Capella’s right.
Those are the highlights of the early evening sky on Halloween night, but if you are up early on Halloween morning or really late on Halloween night, look to the east before dawn for a spectacular gathering of the planets Venus, Jupiter and Mars.
Dazzling Venus is unmistakable, since it is the brightest “star” in our nighttime sky. Brilliant Jupiter is still hovering over Venus after their close conjunction this past weekend. The much fainter red “star” closing in on Venus is the planet Mars, just over one degree to Venus’ lower left on Halloween morning.
Watch as the two worlds move to within three-quarters of a degree of each other on the morning of Nov. 3.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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The 20th anniversary season of Opera Steamboat will kick off this month with a new series, the “Variations Piano Series,” bringing world-class pianists from across the country to Steamboat Springs.