Jimmy Westlake: Planets light up October skies

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

— October is one of my favorite months for sky watching. Clear, crisp autumn evenings are perfect for scanning the skies before the winter snows chase us inside. This October, the planets are the newsmakers as they meander through the stars of the zodiac.

The planet Jupiter has been our evening companion all summer long, and its dominance of our early evening sky continues in October. Look to the southwestern sky after sunset to spot the king of the planets, hovering just above the twinkly red supergiant star Antares. Don't miss the view Oct.15, when the slender crescent Moon forms an eye-catching triangle with Jupiter and Antares.

Mercury, named for the swift messenger god of the Romans, makes a brief appearance in our evening sky this month. During the first week of October, scan the western sky just above the horizon for this bright but illusive planet. By mid-month, Mercury will have vanished.

Most of the planetary activity in October is happening in the early morning sky. If you're an early riser, you might have noticed an astonishingly bright star rising in the east before the sun. This is the planet Venus, appropriately named for the Roman goddess of beauty and love. Venus starts the month as the brightest object in our sky, save the sun and moon. Look carefully and you can see your shadow cast by the goddess of love!

Venus spends the first half of October closing in on the ringed planet Saturn, visible to her lower left as a bright yellowish "star," until, on the morning of Oct. 14, Venus will shine a mere 3 degrees from fainter Saturn. The crescent moon joins the pair of planets and the bright star Regulus for an otherworldly scene on the morning of Oct. 7. Look east at about 6 a.m.

Meanwhile, overhead, the planet Mars grows ever closer and brighter as we move toward its spectacular opposition on Christmas Eve. During October, the red planet lights up the feet of the Gemini Twins, glowing with an unmistakable ruddy hue. Use binoculars to watch Mars glide past the star cluster M35 on Oct. 3 as the third quarter Moon stands by.

Throw in a couple of good meteor showers, the Draconids peaking on Oct. 8 and the Orionids peaking on the 21, and October promises to be an unforgettable month of cosmic moments!

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the websites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" website, Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, MSNBC.com, NationalGeographic.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot newspaper.

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