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Sonoma County Gazette
Night Sky

Night Sky

Oct 23, 2017
by Tre Gibbs, Los Angeles Astronomical Society


Here we are, right in the middle of Autumn and I find myself with a relatively familiar problem – an evening sky with almost no visible planets to view or talk about. Every planet has it’s own particular orbit around our nearest star, the Sun. The closer a planet is to the sun, the faster it will travel around it. For example, Mercury, the planet closest to our sun, takes roughly 88 Earth days (almost 3 months) to make one orbit around the sun. Jupiter, the planet beyond Mars, takes about 12 Earth years to make this same journey, while Neptune – the farthest planet in our solar system, takes about 165 Earth years to orbit the sun once. If your curious about tiny Pluto, it takes about 250 Earth years to go around the sun. See, all of the planets are moving at different speeds, in different orbits around the sun, so naturally there are times when we will see a bunch of them in the night sky and times when we won’t. This month is one of those times.

Saturn, The Roman God of Agriculture, is barely visible, appearing very low on the south western horizon this month as he inches closer and closer toward the sun’s glare. Venus, The Goddess of Beauty and Love, is very low on the eastern horizon just prior to sunrise, also inching closer to the sun’s glare. Both are heading toward the sun’s glare - but in opposite directions. Mars is the only planet right now that you can spot in our night sky, but it’s very faint and rises around 4:00 am, visible above the eastern horizon by 4:45 - 5:00 am mid month. From Earth’s current yet temporary perspective (since we are moving, too) the other “naked eye planets” – Jupiter and Mercury – are rendered practically invisible by the sun’s glare, as they appear to wander behind and in front of the sun in their own particular orbits.

So let’s talk about one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky, Orion the Hunter. First of all, a constellation is a grouping of stars that form imaginary outlines or meaningful patterns, typically representing animals, mythological people or creatures. There are 88 of them! Orion is one of the easiest constellations to spot in the winter months because of the three stars in a row that make up his belt. There are two bright stars above the belt that make up his shoulders, and two bright stars below that make up his knees or ankles. This particular grouping of stars signal the return of winter as he appears to rise above the eastern horizon this month just prior to midnight. By mid winter, Orion is high overhead at midnight but by early spring, Orion is closely behind the setting sun on the western horizon.

This month’s full moon is known as The Full Beaver Moon. In preparation for winter, trappers would take advantage of the beavers engaging in their own busy preparations for the coming winter and harvest their fur. On November 3rd at 10:23 pm, the moon will be at it’s fullest phase. Since the moon is constantly moving, orbiting our planet every 28 days (+/-), it will only technically be full for a minute or two, but it moves so slowly that it will appear almost full to us down here on earth the day before and the day after as well.

So that’s it for this month. Remember to set your clocks back one hour early Sunday morning on the 5th and have a happy, peaceful Thanksgiving!


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