Halloween treats for stargazers

  • By Mike Lynch
  • Thursday, October 24, 2013 11:31am
  • Life

Not only do we have terrestrial ghosts, goblins and other costumed characters roaming the streets Thursday evening, but there are also celestial signs of Halloween lurking in the night sky.

I want to show you some tricks to find some of the great treats in the sky. You may want to pull out the full October star map from my website www.lynchandstars.com.

My first Halloween treat in the Northwest sky is the bright star Arcturus. In fact, it’s the brightest star in the entire evening sky this time of year. It’s a great Halloween star because of its orange color that’s easily seen early in the evening. As soon as it’s dark enough, look for it just above the low west-northwest horizon.

Astronomically the great pumpkin star Arcturus is considered to be a bloated red giant star near the end of its life. Within a billion years or so it will gravitationally shrivel down to a white dwarf star.

Arcturus is haunting us from distance of 214 trillion miles.

There’s an extended ghostly image in the heavens known as the Milky Way Band. Now, all of the stars that we see in the sky at any time are all part of our Milky Way Galaxy, but if you’re lucky enough to be celestially trick-or-treating away from heavy city lighting, you’ll see that ghostly band of light running roughly from the northern horizon through the zenith and onto the southern horizon.

This band is made up of the combined light of billions of stars. You’re peering into the plane of the 100,000 light-year diameter disk-shaped spiral of stars we call our own home galaxy.

My favorite Milky Way lore comes from American Indian tribes. They considered the band to be the collective light of the campfires of souls taking a break for the night on their way to heaven.

Next on my list is another ghostly image, but it’s so small and dim that you’ll have to dig for it a bit with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope to see it unless you’re well out in the countryside far from city lights.

Even then it will only appear as a tiny faint cloud patch. It’s the Andromeda Galaxy, the next door neighbor to our Milky Way Galaxy, a mere 2.5 million light-years away, and is perched in the eastern evening sky.

Just one light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles. That’s a six with 12 zeros after it.

On the October sky map you’ll see that it’s above the constellation Andromeda, which is attached to the great square of the constellation Pegasus, the winged horse.

My final but favorite Halloween treat is the Pleiades Star Cluster.

Anyone can see it no matter how much city light you have, unless maybe you’re in some kind of super bright megastore parking lot.

Just look in the low east-northeast sky a little later in the evening this week, about 9 p.m., and you’ll spot it on the rise.

At first glance it resembles a shrunken Little Dipper, or Big Dipper for that matter.

Many cultures of old believed that when this cluster of stars reached its highest point in the night sky this time of year that disasters, wars, plagues or whatever were soon to follow.

Hopefully no disasters are in the wings for you when you see this bright cluster on the rise it the east. Be careful out there Thursday night.

The Pleiades are also called the Seven Little Sisters cluster because, according to Greek mythology, these seven stars represented the seven weeping daughters of the old god Atlas, who was being forced by newer gods like Zeus and others to hold the whole world up on his shoulders.

Even though it’s called the Seven Little Sisters there’s really only six stars of the cluster that you can easily see with the naked eye.

With a pair of binoculars or a small telescope you can see many, many more stars. Astronomically the Pleiades is a cluster of young stars that formed together about 100,000 years ago, located a little more than 400 light-years from Earth.

Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.

The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.

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