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Last modified: Monday, October 3, 2005

STAR TRAK

Mars will come closest to Earth in October

Photo by: NASA

Mars

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Oct. 3, 2005

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Bright pumpkin-orange Mars will loom large during October, rising in the east as darkness falls and dominating the sky all night as it crosses high in the south. It will be closer to Earth than at any time since its historic close approach in August 2003. If you missed seeing Mars then, you'll have another chance this time around when the planet comes closest on the night of Oct. 29-30. We won't see Mars looking so magnificent again for another 13 years.

Meteor shower

The Orionid meteor shower will peak on the night of Oct. 21-22. Observers with a clear dark sky can expect to see about 15 meteors per hour, though moonlight will eliminate the fainter meteors. The Orionids take their name from the familiar constellation Orion the Hunter, which is where they appear to originate. Orion will rise before midnight in the east-southeast, and the number of meteors will increase as Orion gets higher above the horizon. The meteors are dust particles from Halley's Comet, left behind in the comet's orbit. As Earth crosses that orbit, the comet particles collide with our atmosphere at high speed and are burned up in an instant by friction with air molecules, creating bright streaks in the sky.

Auroras

Auroras can appear whenever the sun is active, but especially from August to October. Eruptions from the sun's surface hurl enormous amounts of material into space. When some of this solar matter heads in our direction, it causes auroral activity that is sometimes visible even from middle latitudes.

You can watch for auroras when they are most likely to happen by checking on "space weather" at Web sites such as http://www.spaceweather.com and http://www.sec.noaa.gov/. Sightings of auroras are reported at http://www.spacew.com/www/aurora.html. Sign up for solar activity alerts by e-mail at http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/proamcollab/astroalert/default.asp.

Solar eclipse

Observers from across Europe will converge on Spain and Portugal for an annular eclipse of the sun on the morning of Oct. 3. The moon will be slightly too small to cover the entire surface of the sun, so a ring of bright sunlight will remain visible around the moon's edges. After the narrow path of the eclipse leaves Europe, it will cross northern and eastern Africa. Residents in the rest of Europe and most of Africa will see a partial solar eclipse. The eclipse will not be visible in the Western Hemisphere. For details and a map, see http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/eclipses/article_1593_1.asp.

Planets

Venus, the brightest planet, will blaze brilliant white low in the southwest during evening twilight this month. After appearing at about the same low altitude for months, it will finally climb higher above the horizon and set longer after the sun.

Jupiter will be barely visible with binoculars above the western horizon at the start of October, far to the lower right (west) of Venus. After the first week or so, it will disappear into the solar glare.

Mercury will be even closer to the western horizon than Jupiter during October for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, but it will be considerably higher in the west when viewed from the Southern Hemisphere. Mercury will linger there all month, gradually getting slightly higher.

Saturn will rise around 2 a.m. local time at the beginning of October but about 11 p.m. by month's end. The best views of the yellow planet with a telescope will be when it is high in the southeast before dawn. Most telescopes will show its famous rings, tilted toward Earth. On Oct. 26, the Cassini spacecraft that is orbiting Saturn will make its first close pass by the planet's largest moon, Titan.

Moon phases

The moon will be new on Oct. 3, at first quarter on Oct. 10, full on Oct. 17 and at third quarter on Oct. 25.