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October is a always great month to go stargazing, and in 2020 it’s got some truly unmissable sights.
In the northern hemisphere October means longer nights, and when the clocks change it makes stargazing a possible in the early evening.
It’s also the month that the jewels of the winter night sky begin to return; the unmissable Andromeda Galaxy—the closest giant galaxy to our Milky Way—is becoming visible right after dark while towards the end of the month the sparkling Pleiades star cluster will rise in the east before midnight.
The planets are lingering. Jupiter and its four Galilean moons shine brightly in the south after dark with dimmer Saturn in tow, but this month it’s the turn of Mars to dominate post-sunset skies as it comes to opposition. Meanwhile, Venus sparkles in the pre-dawn skies.
Insert a couple of meteor showers—one that’s visible right after sunset and another caused by none other than Halley’s Comet—and you’ve got a busy celestial month that deserves an intriguing finale.
Cue a rare “Halloween Hunter’s Blue Moon” on October 31, 2020, which will be best caught at Moonrise.
Here’s exactly what you need to know about when, where and how to catch October 2020’s stargazing highlights:
1. Draconids meteor shower
When: Anytime after dark on Wednesday, October 7, 2020
Where to look: all-sky
Most meteor showers are at their best around midnight when the viewer is firmly on the night-side of the planet. Not so the Draconids meteor shower, which peaks tonight and is best seen right after dark.
The calling card of a short-period comet called 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, which was last in the Solar System in 2018, its dust and debris will create around 10 “shooting stars” per hour. That makes it a great opportunity to go stargazing as soon as it gets dark with the likelihood of at least a few easily visible “shooting stars.”
2. Mars at Opposition
When: Anytime after dark on Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Where to look: Mars will rise in the east, shine all night long in the south and set in the west
Every 26 months Earth and Mars get close. That’s because Earth has an orbital period of 687 days while Earth’s year lasts 365 days. Occasionally, Earth catches up on Mars. That’s what’s happening tonight, essentially placing it between Mars and the Sun. Consequently, not only is Mars bigger in the night sky from our point of view, but it’s 100% illuminated by the Sun—much like the Moon is during a full Moon. So as well as being at its biggest, it’s also at its brightest.. Not surprisingly, this is the best night though in practice – the middle of the best few weeks To look at Mars since 2018. Technically speaking, Miles is this your bigger and brighter than at any time since 2003.
So get outside this week and watch Mars rising in the east at dusk, and setting in the west at all. It’s looking fabulous right now—and unmistakably red.
3. A delicate crescent Moon and Venus
When: an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Where to look: east
Getting up early to go planet and Moon-gazing isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but if you are an early riser it’s worth looking due east this morning to see an incredibly bright planet Venus very close to a delicate crescent Moon.
Our satellite will be merely 1% illuminated while a 76%-lit Venus will be shining at a majestic -4.0 magnitude.
4. Orionids meteor shower
When: Very early hours of October 21, 2020
Where to look: all-sky
There are two meteor showers in October, with the Draconids followed soon after by the Orionid meteor shower, which peaks in the very early hours of Wednesday, October 21, 2020.
The result of debris left in the Solar System by Halley’s Comet, expect to see about 10 and 20 “shooting stars” per hour. Give yourself about 30 minutes to get your eyes dark-adapted.
5. A triangle of Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon
When: After dark on Thursday, October 22, 2020.
Where to look: southwest
Tonight there’s a mighty celestial triangle on show as the bright planet Jupiter teams-up with a 45%-lit young Moon and dimmer Saturn in the south.
Your best time to look is right after darkness falls before the trio set in the southwest.
6. An almost full Moon and Mars
When: Thursday, October 29, 2020
Where to look: east at sunset
Look any time of night tonight and through the early hours of Friday to see a an almost full Moon close to Mars. The red planet, though now slightly past its bright opposition, will still be shining at a super-bright magnitude -2.2.
Look left to see the beautiful Pleiades star cluster, a sure sign of that winter is coming.
7. ‘Halloween Hunter’s Blue Moon’
When: moonrise where you are on October 31, 2020
Where to look: east
No, it’s not going to look blue. As the second full Moon of the month after the “Harvest Moon” on October 1, 2020, tonight’s “Hunter’s Moon” on Halloween will also be known as a “Blue Moon.”
There’s nothing specifically different to see compared to any other full Moon. Just be sure to catch it at Moonrise—in the easter at dusk—to fully appreciate the beautiful orangey hues of a rising full Moon.
As a bonus, the rise of the “Halloween Hunter’s Blue Moon” also signifies the middle of the season of fall/autumn. We’re already halfway to the winter solstice …
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.