Night Sky Highlights for October-December 2022

Solar System

There is a lot going on in the solar system this fall, so we will focus on what you can see and when. The four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) will be visible in the evening skies throughout most of the fall. Mars makes a close approach to Earth in early December. In late December, Mercury and Venus can be spotted in the west right after sunset. There are also several meteor showers, and a total lunar eclipse!

Orionid Meteor Shower
Peaking on the night of October 21-22
This shower does not usually produce large numbers of meteors, but this year is a favorable one for the Orionids because the peak occurs around the time of the new Moon.

Total Lunar Eclipse
Early morning on November 8
From Connecticut, we will see more than half of this eclipse, as the Moon sets just before totality is about to end. If the sky is clear and you find a good view of the western horizon, it should be a very dramatic sight as the darkened Moon sets. The penumbral eclipse begins just after 3 am, and the darker umbral shadow touches the Moon shortly after 4 am. Below are the key times:

3:02 am: Moon enters penumbra
4:09 am: Moon enters umbra
5:16 am: Total eclipse begins
6:36 am: Moon sets
6:42 am: Total eclipse ends

Lunar Occultation of Mars
December 7

Unfortunately, in Connecticut we are a little too far to the south and east to see the full Moon pass in front of Mars late this evening. What we will see, however, is bright Mars getting closer and closer to the Moon as the evening progresses, and then the Moon will pass just above Mars around 11:00 pm to midnight. Some members of ASNH may be planning to travel the New York state or western Massachusetts to see a grazing occultation of Mars. Check the ASNH website for any announcements as the date approaches.

Geminid Meteor Shower
Peaking on the night of December 13-14
This is the strongest meteor shower of the year, producing as many as 150 meteors per hour. It would probably be a lot more popular if December nights were not so frigid. This year, a waning gibbous Moon rises just after 9pm on the peak night, but some of the brighter meteors should still be visible in the early morning hours.

In late December, Mercury will be visible low in the western sky as soon as it gets dark. The best dates to observe it will be about December 20-29, when it will be farthest from the Sun. During this time, it will be close to Venus, which can help you find it. Venus will be a few degrees to the lower right of Mercury at the start of this 10-day interval, and it will pass just below Mercury on December 28. Through a telescope, Mercury will appear about half lit, becoming more of a crescent as the days go by.

Venus will be too close to the Sun to observe during October and most of November. During December it can be seen low in the west just after sunset, not far from the dimmer Mercury. Venus will be about magnitude -3.9 and Mercury about magnitude 0.3. Even at these bright magnitudes they may be hard to see in the bright twilight, and binoculars can help.

The red planet rises in mid-evening in October and by early evening in November. It will be gradually getting closer to Earth, so its apparent size will get larger and larger. Mars reaches opposition (rising as the Sun sets) on December 7, when it will also pass very close to the full Moon (see above).

Jupiter is in the constellation Pisces, and it will be ideally placed for evening observing throughout the fall. Its four brightest moons are very easy to see through any telescope. They are also visible in ordinary binoculars if you can keep them steady. Putting your binoculars on a tripod can make a big difference.

Traveling through Capricornus, Saturn will be visible as soon as it gets dark throughout the fall. The best times to observe it will be in the early fall, because by December it will be sinking in the southwest after sunset and setting by mid-evening. Besides enjoying Saturn’s rings through a telescope, try to notice how many of its moons you can spot on any given night. Titan, its brightest moon, is about magnitude 8.7 and can be seen in even small scopes

If you have never observed Uranus, this fall is a good time to look for it, even with binoculars (since it is about magnitude 5.7). Located in Aries, Uranus rises shortly after sunset in October and will be high enough to observe by later in the evening. It reaches opposition on November 9, and after that it will be visible in the early evenings and almost all night long. Use the finder chart at the link below to locate it.

Neptune is in Aquarius, also well placed for observing this fall, roughly 10 degrees to the west of Jupiter and east of Saturn. At magnitude 7.8, it is bright enough to be observed in any telescope if you have a good finder chart, such as the one at the link below. Though a telescope it has a greenish or bluish tint which helps to distinguish it from any nearby stars.

Finder charts for Uranus and Neptune:


Deep Sky Objects

The fall sky features a wide variety of deep-sky objects, ranging from a nearby open cluster, the Pleiades, to distant galaxy groups such as Perseus I. Listed here are a few potential targets, some easy to observe and some quite difficult.

Messier 15
Globular cluster in Pegasus
Messier 15 is one of the brightest globular clusters at magnitude 6.1, and it is a large 18 arcminutes in diameter. The cluster is about 33,000 light years away. It has a very dense core that may contain a black hole. 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 33, Triangulum Galaxy
Galaxy in Triangulum
This is the second closest spiral galaxy, about 2.3 million light years away, a member of our local galaxy group. It appears face on, about as large as the full Moon, and a low-power eyepiece should be used to find it. Patient observation of its surface can reveal a lot of faint detail through a telescope. In binoculars it can be seen as a large dim patch. Observers in dark locations have seen it with the naked eye. Star-hop chart

Messier 45, the Pleiades or Seven Sisters
Open cluster in Taurus
This is one of the few clusters that can be easily seen and recognized as a group of stars with the naked eye. The number of stars visible to the naked eye varies greatly with the sky conditions and the visual acuity of the observer. Even with moderate light pollution, 5 stars can be seen. Under very dark skies, a viewer with keen vision can see 11 or more stars. When this cluster is high overhead on a dark night, count how many stars you can see. It is a wonderful target for binoculars or a telescope with a wide-field eyepiece. Star-hop chart

Messier 74
Galaxy in Pisces
This 9th magnitude face-on spiral galaxy can be a challenge to find because it has a very low surface brightness. Under dark skies, it 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, Cetus A
Galaxy in Cetus
This barred spiral galaxy is seen almost face-on, and at magnitude 9 it is not hard to see in even small telescopes. The structure of its spiral arms can be seen with large telescopes. The center of this galaxy is a strong radio source known as Cetus A. It is about 33 million light years away. Star-hop chart

NGC 404, Mirach’s Ghost
Galaxy in Andromeda
This galaxy is easy to find because it is so close to the bright star Mirach. Even though it is just 1/10 degree away from the 2nd magnitude star, the 10th magnitude galaxy is surprisingly easy to see through a telescope of medium or large aperture. It appears as a round glow with a brighter center. This galaxy is about 10 million light years away. Star-hop chart

NGC 1499, California Nebula
Diffuse nebula in Perseus
This is a very large nebula, stretching across 2 degrees of sky. It takes a nice picture and does resemble the shape of California, but visually it is very dim and hard to spot unless you have nice dark skies. Using a low power eyepiece with a wide field of view is essential, and a nebula filter can make a big difference. Star-hop chart

Abell 436, Perseus I Galaxy Cluster
Galaxy cluster in Perseus
This rich galaxy cluster is very far away–about 250 million light years–but some of its brightest galaxies can be seen even in telescopes of modest aperture. The two brightest members of the group are NGC 1275 (also known as Caldwell 24 or Perseus A) at about magnitude 11.9 and NGC 1278 at magnitude 12.5. Star-hop chart

Eta Cassiopeiae (Achird)
Double star in Cassiopeia
This is a unique double star for several reasons. It is one of the closest stars, just 19.4 light year away. It is easy to see with the naked eye. The larger star of the pair is about the same size and brightness as our Sun. The dimmer of the two stars is about 2/3 the diameter of our Sun and only about 3% as bright. The two stars are about 71 astronomical units apart (for reference, Pluto’s average distance from the Sun is about 34 astronomical units). Star-hop chart

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