Our Intrepid Blogger Katrin Raynor-Evans takes a look at the night sky this Halloween.
Happy Halloween to you all! If you are reading this then we can assume that the Earth hasn’t been hit by the skull shaped asteroid which the media have been writing about. But a bit more about that later.
What does Halloween mean to you? Perhaps you are celebrating All Hallows Eve in preparation for All Saints Day or enjoying the fun of decorating the house and getting ready for trick or treating. I for one will be watching some scary films and gorging on sweets! However, if the weather is clear, maybe some of you will be outside with your telescopes and binoculars enjoying the darker skies.
Unfortunately there will be no full moon this Halloween so we may not see any witches flying past or silhouettes of werewolf’s howling at our lunar neighbour but it will make for easier observing. The Hunter’s Moon (or the full moon) will be visible on the 24th October. On the 31st October, the moon will be at 50% illumination, but it doesn’t rise until approximately 11pm so disruption should be minimal.
So what spooky treats will we find in our night sky in the Northern Hemisphere on Halloween? Of course everyone’s favourite ghoulishly green tinted Orion Nebula (M42) has returned to our skies now that winter is ever nudging closer. You can view the nebula with the naked eye but if you have a telescope or powerful binoculars, you will be able to see reds and blue-violets caused by different gases within it.
The fantastically named Witch Head Nebula (IC 2118) so called because its exact image of a witch’s face is also present within Orion and located near a very bright star called Rigel. The nebula is faint and illuminated by Rigel and is therefore called a reflection nebula. The Witch Head is an ancient supernova remnant made of dust. Unfortunately, due to the faintness of the nebula, this is not visible to the naked eye but will need to be seen through larger scopes.
Giant crabs chasing you in the dark is stuff of nightmares but I think the Crab Nebula (M1) is one of my favourite nebulas. I remember photographing the Crab Nebula with Allan during my GCSE course on a cold, clear night at the top of a mountain and I thought it was wonderful. There are no large pincers to see but the nebula itself looks exactly like a crab shell. You will find this near the tip of the constellation Taurus. It is will show as a wispy and ghostly, barely there jumble of gases but if you can photograph this and process it on a computer at home, you will not be disappointed.
The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NG6543) will be visible in Draco, the circumpolar constellation meaning Dragon. But if you think black cats are unlucky then this may be something you wish to avoid especially on Halloween! It is a planetary nebula and will be easy to spot even in smaller scopes such as those with a 150mm aperture. Did you know it is also referred to as the Ghost of Jupiter? Eerie!
If you are lucky enough to be observing from the Southern Hemisphere, then you have a wonderful pick n mix of spooky and scary night sky treats to keep you entertained such as the Tarantula Nebula, the Southern Cross constellation and the Keyhole Nebula…dare you look through it?
Martians from outer space and red weed will provoke unnerving memories for older readers from H.G Wells’ ‘The War of The Worlds’, still a firm favourite with me. Mars, the red planet from which these invaders came, will start to fade this month but will just about still be visible towards the end of October.
For any of you magical astronomers out there who are fans of Harry Potter have you ever noted the witches and wizards are often named after stars or constellations in our night sky? We have the likes of Bellatrix Lestrange, Sirius Black and Draco Malfoy…can you spot these stars and constellations in the sky tonight? If you are up in the wee hours then of course you will spot Luna…Luna Lovegood named after our celestial friend, the moon.
If you are a budding witch or wizard, perhaps an owl on your shoulder is something you would like to have. If you look within the constellation Ursa Major, you may get a surprise to make your hair stand on end…a pair of Owl eyes staring back. The Owl Nebula (M97) is approximately 2,030 light years from Earth and can be seen through telescopes of 8 inch apertures and above. It is a fairly faint nebula so can be hard to find unless you are in a dark sky area. But once photographed and processed, it really is a magnificent sight. And what about the skull shaped asteroid whizzing past Earth? Well, you can all sleep easy. Asteroid TB145 was never due to impact with us but instead fly on by at a cool 25 million miles. The images we have seen were taken three years ago by NASA when the asteroid was much closer to us, around 300,000miles. An internet search provides some fun, spooky images so go and take a look!
If it is cloudy tonight then a fun game to entertain the family would be to print out the images of the nebulas that I have mentioned and get them to name them. See if they can guess the extraordinary, otherworldly images.
Enjoy this Halloween whether it be indoors or outside. I wish you clear skies, keep looking up but whatever you do….don’t answer the front door…..