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Autumn sky offers stellar night viewing

By Brad Spakowitz

The starry nights of autumn offer a few advantages over romanticized summer nights: The skies have less moisture, pollen and haze and are therefore clearer; there are fewer bugs; and nightfall arrives much earlier.

On the downside, the nights are colder, and you will need extra outerwear or a blanket for comfort.
With that said, bundle-up and get ready for some night sky fun.

Planetary progressions
After being hidden in the predawn sky all summer, the outer planets have now returned to the evening sky and are visible to the naked eye.

As the sky darkens, yellow-white Saturn is already above the horizon in the southeastern sky – shining not too terribly brightly – but brighter than surrounding stars.

By 8 p.m., blazing white Jupiter is rising in the east.

This one you can easily spot because it is so very bright.

By 10:30 p.m., Mars is rising just to the left of due east, not as bright as Jupiter but unmistakably orange in color.

As the night wears on, these three planets will move across the southern sky with Saturn setting before sunrise and Jupiter and Mars still above the horizon but fading as dawn brightens the sky.

These planets will be rising earlier and earlier as autumn progresses.

By the end of November, all three of these planets will be clearly visible and already shining in the southern sky shortly after sunset.

Currently, bright-white Venus is very close to the sun and is best viewed just before sunrise in the east.
Expect much better viewing this winter when Venus becomes an evening star and will appear in the west shortly after sunset.

The other planets require a trained eye or a telescope to spot.

Moon watch
The moon hangs lower in the sky during summer and autumn, but it can be a neck-stretcher in winter when the moon’s path across the sky is much higher, although not directly overhead.

The September full moon (Sept. 10) is already behind us, but we have two more ahead this autumn: Oct. 9 and Nov. 8.

The November full moon is the one to plan for as it will also bring a total lunar eclipse – the second visible eclipse in Northeast Wisconsin this year.

The eclipse occurs in the predawn hours, so you will need to plan ahead for this one.

The partial phase of the eclipse starts at 3:09 a.m., with the total eclipse – when the moon takes on a characteristic “blood moon” orange color – beginning at 4:16 a.m.

Maximum eclipse hits at 4:59 a.m., with totality ending at 5:41a.m.

Of course, totality is followed by another partial phase of the eclipse, with the final stages of the eclipse occurring as the moon is slipping below the horizon and the sun is coming up.

Fire in the sky
There are several annual meteor showers this autumn.

Next up is the Draconids (Oct. 8-9), which typically brings five to 10 meteors per hour.

However, this year’s shower coincides with the full moon which will brighten skies and limit meteor viewing.

Just a few weeks later, the reliable Orionid Meteor Shower peaks Oct. 21-22, bringing about 20 meteors per hour with best viewing around or after midnight.

The Orionids are known as being fast-moving meteors that sometimes prodcue persistent trails and the occasional bright fireball.

Last up is the Leonid Meteor Shower, which peeks Nov. 17-18 and brings about 10-20 meteors per hour, especially between the narrow window from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Aurora borealis
Keep your eyes open for the northern lights.

The sun is in a very active phase as it nears the peak of its 11-year cycle of solar storms.

These storms send charged particles into space, where they interact with the earth’s magnetic field creating aurora.

So there you have it.

There are plenty of interesting sights coming up in the night sky.

As usual, the only thing that can go wrong is the inclimate weather and cloudy skies, so hope for the best!

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