Ice giants lurk in our southern sky

The maps show the sky at 23.00 BST on the 1st, 22.00 BST (21.00 GMT) on the 16th and at 20.00 GMT on the 31st. Summer time ends at 02.00 BST on the 26th when clocks are set back one hour to 01.00 GMT.  (Click on map to englarge)

The maps show the sky at 23.00 BST on the 1st, 22.00 BST (21.00 GMT) on the 16th and at 20.00 GMT on the 31st. Summer time ends at 02.00 BST on the 26th when clocks are set back one hour to 01.00 GMT. (Click on map to englarge)

Our October nights are some of the finest for stargazing in the entire year. The temperatures have yet to plumb the bone-chilling depths of winter, but the constellations visible between dusk and dawn include all the highlights of our summer and winter skies. It is just a shame that most of the bright planets are poorly placed at present.

The nights begin with the Summer Triangle high in the south. Formed by the prominent stars Vega in Lyra, Altair in Aquila and Deneb in Cygnus, its stands just to the west of the meridian at nightfall, but tumbles into the west by the star map times. In a dark sky, the diffuse band of the Milky Way flows through it is it arches overhead through Cepheus and Cassiopeia.

Look up in the south at our map times for the large, and largely empty, Square of Pegasus, and very low in the south, less than 5° high for Edinburgh, to find Fomalhaut in Pisces Austrinus, the Southern Fish. A young star only 25 light years away, it is surrounded by disks of dust and probably orbited by two or more planets.

Only two planets are visible at our map times as they lurk to the south of the Square. Uranus and Neptune are plotted on our chart in Pisces and Aquarius respectively, but they are binocular-brightness at magnitude 5.7 and 7.8 and demand more detailed charts, perhaps from the Internet, to identify them. They show tiny bluish disks through a telescope, with Uranus only 3.7 arcseconds wide when it comes to opposition at a distance of 2,845 million km on the 7th, while Neptune is currently 2.3 arcseconds and 1,500 million km further away. Both have ring systems, invisible under normal circumstances, and a plethora of moons.

For decades, these distant worlds have been classed among the gas giants to distinguish them from the smaller rocky planets closer to the Sun. Both are of similar size, some four times wider than Earth, with Uranus being 51,118 km in equatorial diameter and Neptune only 1,600 km smaller. Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, though, they contain a much smaller proportion of raw hydrogen and helium and instead are predominantly composed of the ices of water, methane and ammonia. Indeed, they are more often now classed as ice giants.

Taurus, climbing in the east, is the forerunner of the spectacular constellations of winter centred around Orion. The latter rises below Taurus over the following two hours and is unmistakable in the south before dawn as Sirius, the brightest star, twinkles furiously in the south-south-east.

In northern Orion, 10° to the north-east of Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder, lies the radiant point for the Orionids meteor shower which is active in the mornings from the 16th to the 30th. Fast meteors diverge from the point, particularly around the 22nd when numbers may approach 25 per hour under dark moonless skies. The meteoroids were released by Comet Halley.

The Sun sinks another 11° southwards during October as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:15/18:48 BST (06:15/17:48 GMT) on the 1st to 07:17/16:35 GMT on the 31st. British Summer Time ends at 02:00 BST on the 26th when clocks are set back one hour to 01:00 GMT. Nautical twilight at dawn and dusk persists for a little over 80 minutes.

The Moon is at first quarter on the 1st and full on the 8th when observers around the Pacific, including N America, see a total lunar eclipse. Last quarter occurs on the 15th with new moon on the 23rd which brings a partial solar eclipse visible over most of N America and the north-eastern Pacific. First quarter comes round again on the 31st.

The solitary conspicuous planet is Jupiter but we must wait until the morning hours to see it. The largest of the gas giants shines at magnitude -1.9 as it rises in the east-north-east at about 02:00 BST at present and before 23:30 at the month’s end, climbing high into the south-east and even the south before dawn later in the period. Mid-October sees it slip from Cancer into Leo and by the 31st it has drawn to within 10° of Leo’s main star Regulus. The Moon stands 6° below Jupiter on the 18th when the planet is 35 arcseconds wide and 841 million km away.

Venus may be brilliant at magnitude -3.9 but it rises in the east only 40 minutes before sunrise on the 1st and is soon lost from view as it tracks towards superior conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 25th. Mercury, though, slips through inferior on the Sun’s near side on the 16th and becomes a morning star during the final week of the month. By the 31st, it rises almost two hours before sunrise and shines at magnitude -0.4 low in the east-south-east.

Saturn and Mars are challenging evening planets just above the south-west horizon as darkness falls. Saturn, magnitude 0.6 in Libra, is lost from view later in the month as it is swallowed by the twilight, though experienced telescope users may be able to observe it being occulted by the young Moon in the late afternoon of the 25th. It is 11° high in Edinburgh’s south-west when it disappears behind the Moon’s eastern edge at 16:55 BST, though since they are 21° to the right of the Sun, caution is advised.

Mars, now well to the left of Saturn, dims from magnitude 0.8 to 0.9 as it tracks eastwards from 4° above Antares in Scorpius. Catch it 6° below the young Moon on the 28th.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on September 30th 2014, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.