Zodiacal light, Saturn and the Moon in Fall Skies

Saturn, the Moon, and Zodiacal Light visible this week make for some spectacular fall sights in our fall skies over Maine. Here is your guide to the sky for October 23-29, 2017

Sun and Moon

Days are shortening and in just under two weeks we will “Fall Back” to standard time.  Currently the Sun rises at 7:05 am and sets at 5:32 pm this week. First Quarter Moon takes place on Friday at 6:22pm so the early week has nice views of a waxing crescent Moon right after sunset.  Look for a beautiful pairing of the crescent Moon with Saturn on Tuesday evening when they appear 3 degrees apart in the early evening sky.

Three visible planets, two hidden in the Sun’s Glare

Jupiter and Mercury are lost in the glare of the Sun this week, with Jupiter in Conjunction on Thursday. Saturn is our only evening planet being visible from sunset until 8:15pm in the southwestern sky.  Venus and Mars are in our morning sky with Mars rising at 4:26 am and Venus at 5:20 am.

Zodiacal Light in Morning Skies

The zodiacal light has two seasons, dusk in spring and dawn in fall. To see it you need a dark eastern sky at this time of year.  Go outside about two hours before sunrise facing east and you will notice a big cone of diffuse light, broad at the base and tapering along its length. The soft, glowing nature of the zodiacal light resembles that of the Milky Way Galaxy we view from our vantage point here on Earth. Our galaxy’s appearance results from the combined light of billions of distant stars, but the zodiacal light originates from sunlight scattered off  tiny, dust-mote sized comet grains and bits of asteroid debris in our solar system. The dust nearest the Sun is lit brightest and the farther up and away you look from the Sun, the less intense the scattered light and the fainter the cone becomes. This faint light requires dark skies but is beautiful to witness.

October 26 at 7:30pm – Courtesy of Heavens-Above.com

One simple way to find the “W” shaped constellation of Cassiopeia is to follow the pointer stars of the Big Dipper to the North Star “Polaris” and then continue past that star an equal distance and you will spot the Queen on her throne.  Cassiopeia was considered to be the Queen of ancient Ethiopia and mother to Andromeda the princess.  She often bragged of her beauty and once went so far as to claim she was more beautiful than the sea nymphs which angered Poseidon.   Perseus looks like a “Christmas Tree” shaped group of stars just below the feet of Andromeda and to the side of Cassiopeia.  Known for his bravery, he went on a quest to slay the evil witch Medusa who had snakes for hair and eyes that could turn mortals to stone.  Perseus used his shield to see her reflection and was able to complete his quest.  One can see him holding the head of Medusa which has an eye called Algol.  This star varies in brightness over time and has been called the “demon star” in the past.

Check out the morning zodiacal light before dawn, see Saturn and the Moon in the early evening skies, and find Perseus and Cassiopeia in the autumn evening.  As always keep your eye on the sky!



Shawn Laatsch

About Shawn Laatsch

Shawn Laatsch is the director of the Emera Astronomy Center and Jordan Planetarium at the University of Maine. He started his astronomy education career in 1984 and has directed planetariums in university and science center facilities, taught undergraduate astronomy courses, and given numerous lectures around the globe. He serves as President (2017 & 2018) of the International Planetarium Society, Inc. the world’s largest organization of planetarium professionals. Shawn has a passion for sharing astronomy and stargazing with people of all ages.