The New England landscape will slowly transform over the course of this month from the lush greens of summer to the brilliant and varied hues of our famous flaming foliage.

As this terrestrial transformation is taking place, our celestial views are also changing from the familiar summer constellations to the slow rising of the winter hexagon out of the ocean in the east. This heralds the approach of winter, as the nights will consistently be getting longer, cooler and crisper.

Every month has its share of exciting events taking place in our sky. There are no more eclipses this month, but there will be two meteor showers and a rare parade of four of the five brightest planets in the morning sky along with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko becoming visible in Leo with a telescope. There is also another comet, named Catalina, which is getting brighter in the southern hemisphere and will become visible for us in December. The second brightest asteroid, Vesta, will be visible in Cetus the Whale, with binoculars all month around midnight.

The Orionid meteor shower will peak during the night of Oct. 21. The waxing gibbous moon will set about an hour and a half after midnight that morning, which still leaves four hours of dark skies to enjoy these meteors, which are actually tiny, sand grain-sized pieces of Halley’s Comet burning up high in our atmosphere. We pass through the debris trail of this famous comet twice every year. The other shower this comet causes is the Eta Aquarids on May 4. This is the only comet that causes two meteor showers every year for us on Earth.

This will be a great opportunity to focus on and learn the winter hexagon, which contains all the brightest stars in the late fall and winter sky. Orion the Hunter is in the middle of this hexagon. All the meteors will appear to originate from the club that Orion is holding high over his head, as if he were throwing these meteors all over the sky just to dazzle us Earthlings with his great power.

This year, the shower is only expected to produce about 15 meteors per hour, but some years that goes up to 70. The number is not as important as being able to appreciate that Earth is speeding through comet dust at 67,000 mph and getting a better sense of our precious and protective, thin and tenuous atmosphere at that time.

All of our brightest planets except Saturn will be making appearances in the morning sky. The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, will not only be very close to each other, similar to their recent great conjunction on June 30, but they will also be close to their highest in the sky one hour before sunrise in the east-southeastern sky in Leo all month.

This appearance will not be closer than the one in June, but this time Mars and even Mercury will join them in this fantastic early morning celestial dance of the planets. Not only do we get to watch and learn from these four bright planets this month, but the 21st brightest star in our sky, Regulus in Leo, will join the action along with a waning crescent moon on Oct. 8. Three of these planets will live within a narrow 31/2-degree wide circle for a while, and then they will take turns expanding this circle over the course of their spectacular dance gracing our morning skies for all of this month.

We will get a chance to see the comet that we landed on last November. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will be visible in Leo just above all the planetary action in the morning sky if you have a telescope. It may only reach 11th or 12th magnitude, so you would need a 6- or 8-inch telescope to see it. This comet reached perihelion, or its closest approach to the sun, in August, shooting out huge jets of material around that time. It is only 2.8 miles across and has a very strange two-lobed shape, as if two comets got smashed together. It belongs to the Jupiter family of comets and orbits the sun every 6.5 years.

This is the first time we ever landed a scientific instrument on a comet and then tracked it with another spacecraft. The Philae lander had a tough time since its harpoons didn’t fire to anchor it to the comet, so it bounced a couple times and couldn’t get much data. The lander is named for the Philae obelisk, which was used to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. The spacecraft is called Rosetta. We are trying to decipher in detail for the first time some of the great mysteries that this 4.5-billion-year-old chunk of primordial rock and ice is really telling us.

Saturn is getting lower in the sky in Scorpius. The ringed planet will get too low in our atmosphere to get a good view of it through telescopes by the end of this month. A waxing crescent moon will join Saturn on the evening of Oct. 16.

Be aware that the fainter planets of the outer solar system are all visible with binoculars in the evening sky near Saturn. Uranus will be at opposition in Pisces on the 11th, and Neptune is just past its best for the year in Aquarius. Then, keep traveling west to find Pluto in Sagittarius. At only 14.5 magnitude, it will take a very good telescope to be able to see it for yourself, but it is good to know where it is in our sky as more exciting high resolution images filter in from the New Horizons spacecraft that passed right by it on July 14.


Oct. 1: In 1897, the Yerkes 40-inch refractor was dedicated. At that time, it was the largest telescope in the world, and now it is still the largest refractor in the world.

Oct. 2: The waning gibbous moon passes half a degree north of Aldebaran in Taurus this morning.

Oct. 4: Sputnik was launched in 1957, essentially beginning the Space Age. The last quarter moon is at 5:06 p.m.

Oct. 8: The moon passes just south of Venus this morning.

Oct. 9: The waning crescent moon passes just south of Mars and Jupiter and the Draconid Meteor shower peaks this morning. Caused by Comet Giacobini-Zinner, this shower produces about 10 or 15 meteors per hour. They will all originate from Draco the Dragon near Polaris in Ursa Minor, which is also known as the Little Dipper.

Oct. 11: The moon passes near Mercury this morning. Uranus is at opposition.

Oct. 12: New moon is at 8:06 p.m.

Oct. 15: Mercury is at its greatest western elongation at 18 degrees west of the sun.

Oct. 16: The moon passes just north of Saturn this evening.

Oct. 17: Mars passes less than half a degree north of Jupiter this morning.

Oct. 20: First quarter moon is at 4:31 p.m.

Oct. 21: The Orionid meteor shower peaks this morning.

Oct. 23: The moon passes just north of Neptune in Aquarius this evening.

Oct. 26: Venus passes just 1.1 degrees south of Jupiter this morning, just one hour after Venus reaches its greatest western elongation from the sun. The moon is at perigee, or closest to Earth, at 222,739 miles this morning.

Oct. 27: Full moon is at 8:05 a.m. This is also called the Hunter’s Moon.

Oct. 31: In 2005, the Hubble Space Telescope discovered two new moons of Pluto, named Nix and Hydra. It then discovered Kerberos in 2011 and Styx in 2012.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.

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