Lights Both Bright and Dim
Just a week past equinox, the balance between day and night is shifting fast, with a loss of nearly 20 minutes of sunshine already.
The sun sets this week before 6:50, with Saturn and Venus in its wake tight against the horizon, although you may need binoculars to find them. At week’s end, the two are just a couple degrees apart, but Saturn is on its way out of our evening skies, while Venus in its retrograde orbit climbs a bit higher night by night.
The skies are truly dark by 8pm, at which time the Summer Triangle, made up of the constellations Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila, is directly overhead. Most prominent of the three is the swan Cygnus, also called the Northern Cross. Stretching from it to north and south is the cloudy glow of the Milky Way.
Around the same time, Jupiter rises in the east. The giant planet is near opposition, when it will be visible all night long, rising as the sun sets and setting at daybreak. Aside from the waning moon, there is no brighter object in the sky, and Jupiter shines in a barren section of sky, so there should be no mistaking it. By 3am it is almost directly overhead, and as daybreak approaches, it is high in the west.
Mars rises in the northeast around 2am and is high in the east by 6am. It shines this week at the center of Cancer the crab. None of that constellation’s stars is brighter than third magnitude, but its heart is abuzz with life. To the unaided eye, the Beehive Cluster appears at best as a smudge of light. But aim a pair of binoculars — or better yet, a small telescope — at the crab’s center and you’ll see that it is actually made up of hundreds of stars.
The waxing crescent moon is just a few degrees above the first-magnitude star Antares, the heart of the scorpion, Saturday, October 1 and reaches first-quarter phase Monday, October 3.