Lost in Plain Sight
The new moon is right in front of us, but its absent light reveals plenty
Friday marks new moon. You might think that the new moon is lost behind the sun. But the moon is roughly 250,000 miles from earth, while the sun is more than 90 million miles away. So the moon can never be behind the sun. Rather, new moon is right in front of us, directly between earth and the sun, invisible in the blinding glare.
This makes for dark night skies much of the week, allowing you to spot more dim and distant celestial objects.
One of those is Uranus, which reaches opposition October 3. The planet is its closest to earth, rising as the sun sets and setting with sunrise the next morning. Even so, at magnitude 5.7 Uranus is at the threshold of what the unaided eye can see. Worse yet, the distant planet is amid the dim stars of Pisces, so there is little to guide you. Your best bet is to look with binoculars at 7:30pm when Uranus will be due east 15 degrees above the horizon. At best it will appear as a small blue-green dot, its steady glow distinguishing it from any nearby stars.
This year’s Draconid meteor shower, which peaks between Monday night and Tuesday morning, will also benefit from the moon’s absence, with a thin crescent setting early in the evening. The meteors appear to emanate from the constellation Draco the dragon, which is already at its zenith come sunset. Typically a minor shower generating 10 meteors an hour, the dragon sometimes awakens in a fury, as in 1933 and 1946 when the sky was ablaze with thousands of meteors. Could the dragon again roar this year? Watch to find out.
Finally, use the moon’s absence to search the pre-dawn sky for the elusive zodiacal light, also called false dawn. It appears as a faint glow rising from the east horizon. What you’re seeing are specks of dust left over from the formation of the solar system orbiting the sun and illuminated by its light.