Look up: Halloween offers treats for stargazers
Posted October 31, 2016
Dusk falls (end of civil twilight) tonight at 6:45. The new moon makes for a very dark sky, so equip your trick or treaters with a flashlight and make sure they are otherwise easy for motorists to see.
That dark sky is great for sidewalk astronomy. If you have a telescope gathering dust under a bed or in a closet somewhere, get it out and enjoy the night sky. You don't have to be an expert to share either. I like to have a step stool handy for smaller trick-or-treaters and a card table to set plastic pumpkins or masks while looking through the telescope.
Venus will be very bright in the southwestern sky setting after 8 p.m. Up and to the right of Venus, dimmer Saturn will also be visible. You can make out Saturn’s rings even in an inexpensive telescope.
Mars will be visible in orange about a third of the way up the southern sky, setting in the southwest around 11 p.m.
You might even see a meteor from the Northern Taurid meteor shower currently underway.
While the International Space Station will not be visible tonight, the Chinese one will. Between 7 and 8 p.m., you may also spot space junk from 45+ years of spy satellite launches.
- Look to the south at 7:14 pm: Russian space junk dating back to 1970 will pass nearly overhead, setting in the north seven minutes later.
- Look to the north at 7:19 p.m.: Chinese space junk from a 2010 launch of a trio of reconnaissance satellites will also pass nearly overhead but more slowly setting in the south 14 minutes later.
- Look to the north at 7:21 p.m., an American Atlas IIIB which launched for the National Reconnaissance Office in 2005 will follow a bit faster along nearly the same path.
- Look to the west-southwest at 7:34 p.m.: About two-thirds up the sky, an Italian satellite is expected to flare or briefly reflect sunlight very brightly as it rotates. Calculations put the best place to view this just north of Winston-Salem, but it should be very visible from most of central North Carolina as well.
- Look to the southwest at 7:28 p.m.: Tiangong 2, China’s second test bed in their space station program, currently crewed by taikonauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, will rise, moving higher to the left until it passes into Earth’s shadow three minutes later.
If your skies are darker you may notice other man-made objects moving through the sky during the hour or two before sunrise and after sunset. Generally speaking, if a dim point of light is moving and you don't see any flashing lights, it’s probably a satellite, not an aircraft.