Night Sky Highlights for October-December 2018

Solar System

Geminid Meteor Shower
Peaking on the night of December 13-14

Weather permitting, the Geminids could be the best meteor shower of this year. Up to 120 meteors per hour are possible under perfect conditions.  This year it will be best to look after midnight, when the Moon has set and Gemini is higher in the sky.

Mercury truly moves quickly.  The best dates to observe it in the west after sunset will be around November 6.  Then, around December 15, it will be visible in the morning sky, low in the east just before dawn. On the morning of December 21 it will be less than a degree above Jupiter.

Venus will be near the Sun during October and early November.  By mid-November and throughout December and beyond, it will be visible as the brightest object in the eastern sky before dawn.

The disk of Mars will appear to shrink in size as it move away from Earth this fall.  However, it will still be a fairly decent size through October, and worth taking a look.  By the end of the year it will be lost in the Sun’s glare.

If you want to see Jupiter in the evening, be sure to do so in early October, when it will be low in the west after sunset.  After that it will be too close to the Sun to observe.  In late December, it reappears in the eastern sky just before dawn.

Saturn is in Sagittarius, and it will be well placed for observing in the southwest sky after sunset during October and early November. After that it will be too close to the Sun to get a good view of it.

Uranus and Neptune
The fall is an ideal time to see these two planets.  Uranus is in Pisces, and Neptune is in Aquarius.  In fact, during October, Uranus will be about magnitude 5.7, making it potentially visible to the naked eye from a very dark location.  To find these gas giants, you will need a finder chart such as the one in this article from the Sky & Telescope website:


Deep Sky Objects

With a typical amateur telescope on a clear, dark fall evening, you can spot deep-sky objects ranging from relatively nearby open clusters to distant galaxies. There are also beautiful nebulae, double stars, and globular clusters waiting to be seen. Here is a small sample of what is available.  For help in finding any of these objects, click on the link to get a star-hop chart.

Almach (Gamma Andromedae)
Double star in Andromeda
This is a beautiful double star, with a brighter yellow star of magnitude 2.2 and a dimmer blue star of magnitude 5.0.  They are separated by 9.8 arcseconds, so they can be split with even a small telescope.  The pair is about 390 light years away.  Star-hop chart

Melotte 20, the Alpha Persei Association
Stellar association in Perseus
The bright star Mirfak is also known as Alpha Persei. The group of young, hot stars that surround it is called the Alpha Persei Association. This is one of the few star clusters that can be seen with the naked eye, and it is a wonderful sight through binoculars. The cluster extends about 3 degrees from end to end, making it too large to fit in the field of view of most telescopes. This group of stars is about 600 light years away.  Star-hop chart

Messier 2
Globular cluster in Aquarius
At magnitude 6.6 and covering 1/4 degree of sky, Messier 2 is a nice view through a small telescope and a very impressive one through a larger telescope. It has a dense and bright center. It is tricky to find because there are no bright stars nearby, but it is worth the effort. Star-hop chart

Messier 15
Globular cluster in Pegasus
Messier 15 is one of the brightest globular clusters at magnitude 6.1, and it has a very dense core. The cluster is estimated to be about 33,000 light years away, and to contain over 100,000 stars. It is a nice sight through telescopes of small or medium aperture, and the view through a large Dobsonian scope is spectacular. Star-hop chart

Messier 27, the Dumbbell Nebula
Planetary nebula in Vulpecula
The Dumbbell Nebula is one of the largest and brightest examples of a planetary nebula. It is high overhead during fall evenings. It can be seen as a dim patch through binoculars, and a telescope will reveal its hourglass shape. This nebula is about 3 light years in diameter and about 1360 light years away.  Star-hop chart

Messier 76, the Little Dumbbell Nebula
Planetary nebula in Perseus
After viewing the Dumbbell Nebula, why not try for its smaller namesake?  This planetary nebula is smaller and harder to see well. Through a telescope at medium to high power, it has a rectangular shape with a slighlty narrower midsection.  Star-hop chart

Messier 52
Open cluster in Cassiopeia
Messier 52 is a rich open cluster of some 200 stars covering an area about 1/3 the size of the full Moon. A few of its stars can be seen with binoculars, but the best view is through a telescope at low power, where the cluster will stand out nicely from the Milky Way background. Star-hop chart

Messier 33
Galaxy in Triangulum
The Triangulum Galaxy is the second closest spiral galaxy (after M32, the Andromeda Galaxy), about 2.3 million light years away and a member of our local galaxy group. It covers an area of sky larger than the full moon, but because its light is spread out over a large area, it can be difficult to see when you first look through a telescope or binoculars.  Star-hop chart

Messier 74
Galaxy in Pisces
Under dark skies, this face-on spiral galaxy can be seen in a small telescope, and large scopes will show a brighter center and some detail in its spiral arms. This galaxy is similar in size to our Milky Way Galaxy, and it is about 32 million light years away.  Star-hop chart

Messier 77
Galaxy in Cetus
Also known as Cetus A, M 77 is an example of a Seyfert galaxy–a galaxy with a bright and active nucleus that is a strong emitter of radio waves. This bright nucleus is quite noticeable through a telescope. With a large telescope, quite a bit of structure can be seen in this face-on galaxy. The distance to M77 is about 47 million light years.  Star-hop chart

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