This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday October fifth and sixth written by Joe Slomka.
The Sun sets at 6:30 PM; night falls at 8:04. Dawn breaks at 5:24 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 6:58.
The darkening sky reveals a host of bright stars, but only one bright planet – Saturn. Saturn is getting lower daily, and our turbulent atmosphere begins to smear the details of its rings. Saturn sets at 8:47 PM.
Nightfall reveals distant Solar System members Neptune and Uranus. They remain in their usual places, Aquarius and Pisces, respectively. Neptune fades slightly this month, while Uranus is actually at peak brilliance. Finder charts can be found in astronomy magazines, websites and apps. Neptune sets at 10:35 PM. Uranus is best observed at 1:07 AM and remains up the rest of the night.
The waning Moon rises at 12:53 AM on Tuesday, and 1:51 AM on Wednesday. It occupies the constellation Cancer on both nights. The Moon’s brilliance unfortunately blots out two binocular star clusters, the Beehive, also called M44, and M67. Note the Moon’s location and, when it is far away from Cancer, try spotting these star clusters in your binoculars.
At Dawn, three bright planets, all in Leo, join the Moon. Venus is the first to rise, at 3:14 AM. By Dawn, Venus is moderately high in the eastern sky, and appears lower left of the Moon. Venus is second to the Moon in brightness. With high-powered binoculars or a telescope, an observer will see that both Moon and Venus display phases. Tuesday, both are illuminated the same; Wednesday sees the Moon as thinner than Venus. Venus also lies three degrees from the bright star Regulus, the main star in Leo. Mars rises next, at 3:52 AM, and appears under the Lion’s belly. Finally, Jupiter rises at 4:18 and appears between the Lion’s rear legs. Early risers should track the progress of these planets as they slowly converge.
One other Solar System member is visible in tonight’s sky – Vesta. Vesta is an asteroid, just past opposition. It is best observed about 12:30 AM, when it shines at magnitude 6.2 It is located in Cetus, near the star Iota Ceti.
Vesta is the fourth dwarf planet to be discovered. It orbits the Sun every 3.6 years. Like the first three asteroids, Vesta was temporarily named a planet, until astronomers realized their small size. Vesta is the brightest. It can be seen in binoculars from a dark, rural site. Those seeking Vesta should consult magazine articles and web sites to identify the asteroid amid similar looking stars.
Vesta is the goddess of the hearth. Roman homes had hearths for cooking and heat; in fact the hearth was her shrine. Romans said daily prayers to her in thanksgiving for food and heat. The household fire must never go out. Should the fire go out, a new fire could only be started from another holy hearth or Vesta’s temple fire. At the temple, six Vestal Virgins, unmarried women, tended to the sacred fire day and night. Vestalia was a religious festival when the Vestal Virgins would clean the temple and relight the flame with a magnifying glass.