Night Sky Highlights for October-December 2023
By Jim Mazur
Partial Solar Eclipse, Saturday October 14
Some parts of North America will see a total annual eclipse, but here in Connecticut we will only see the Moon taking a small bite out of the Sun. For us the eclipse begins at about 12:13 pm (varying a little depending on where you are located) and ends at about 2:34 pm. The maximum coverage will be at about 1:23 pm, when the Sun will be about 20% covered. Of course, you should NEVER look directly at the Sun! Use either an approved solar filter or pinhole projection to display an image of the Sun on a white surface.
A chance to see this elusive planet will come in the first week of December, when Mercury can be found low in the western sky after dusk. Though at about magnitude -0.3, it may be difficult to see because of the bright twilight sky.
Brilliant Venus will be visible in the eastern sky before sunrise throughout the fall. It begins October in a crescent phase, which changes to gibbous later in the month.
Don’t bother with Mars this fall. It will be too close to the Sun to be seen until early 2024.
The giant planet is in Aries, rising in mid-evening in October. It reaches opposition (rising as the Sun sets) on November 3, and after that it will be well placed for observing in the early evening.
Located in Aquarius, Saturn can be observed in the evenings throughout the fall. Besides viewing its beautiful rings, you can also look for a few of its brightest moons nearby. The brightest moon, Titan, is about magnitude 8.8 and can be seen in even a small telescope.
Uranus is in Aries, rising soon after Jupiter and reaching opposition on November 13. At about magnitude 6, it can be seen in binoculars if you know where to look. A finder chart can be found at:
Neptune is on the border of Pisces and Aquarius. It can be observed with binoculars or a telescope in the evenings throughout the fall. Using a telescope with high magnification (200x or more), you should be able to see its small blue-green disk. Here is a finder chart for Neptune:
Deep Sky Objects
Messier 27, Dumbbell Nebula
Planetary Nebula in Vulpecula
This is arguably the best example of a planetary nebula in the sky. It is large (8′ across), bright (magnitude 7.1, and it can be even seen in binoculars. Through a telescope, the dumbbell or hourglass shape is readily seen. It is about 1400 light years away. Star-hop chart
Messier 76, Little Dumbbell Nebula
Planetary Nebula in Perseus
After viewing its more famous namesake (the Dumbbell), track down this smaller and dimmer planetary nebula in Perseus. It is much smaller (2.7′ across) and dimmer (magnitude 10,1), but its bi-lobed shape can be seen in typical backyard scopes using medium to high magnification. Star-hop chart
NGC 40 (Caldwell 2), Bow-Tie Nebula
Planetary Nebula in Cepheus
The 9th magnitude star at the center of this planetary nebula is easy to see. The surrounding nebula is more difficult, but with a medium-sized scope, careful looking can reveal some nice detail, including two bright edges that give this nebula its nickname. Star-hop chart
NGC 6960 and NGC 6992-5, Veil Nebula
Supernova Remnant in Cygnus
This is an amazing object to study on a dark night, especially if you have an OIII filter to enhance the view. With a medium to large scope, intricate details can be seen throughout both sections of the nebula, which are about 3 degrees apart. Star-hop chart
NGC 663 (Caldwell 10)
Open Cluster in Cassiopeia
Cassiopeia contains many open clusters, and this is a nice one for telescopes of all sizes. It is about magnitude 7 and spans an area about 14′ across. It is just 1.5 degrees to the northeast of M103, which is about one-third the size of NGC 663. Star-hop chart
Open cluster in Cepheus
This is a rich cluster of about 70 stars in an area of about one-third the diameter of the Moon. It is about 5900 light years away. For an interesting comparison, after viewing this cluster push your scope 2/3 degree to the southeast to find the spiral galaxy NGC 6946. Star-hop chart
NGC 6946 (Caldwell 12), Fireworks Galaxy
Spiral Galaxy in Cygnus
The Fireworks Galaxy gets its name from its record of frequent supernovas–9 in about 100 years. Visually it is a large but faint glow. It is estimated to be about 22 million light years away, which is relatively close on a galactic scale. With a low-power eyepiece it can be seen in the same field as NGC 6939. Star-hop chart
Gamma Andromedae (Almach)
Double Star in Andromeda
This is a nice colorful double star with a bright yellow star (magnitude 2.2) and a dimmer blue one (magnitude 5.0), separated by 9.8″. The pair is easily resolved in telescopes of all sizes. Almach is about 390 light years away. Star-hop chart
Triple Star in Cassiopeia
Iota Cassiopeiae is a beautiful triple star with components of different colors. The two closest stars are only 2.7″ apart, so high magnification is needed to separate them. The group is about 130 light years away. Star-hop chart