A harvest moon shone brightly in the night skies on October 1, 2020 (Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)
It’s been only a week since October began, and skywatchers have already been treated to a gorgeous, full Harvest Moon and the opportunity to observe Mars at its brightest since 2003. As it turns out, the two events were only a precursor to the other thrilling celestial treats in store for us for the rest of the month. They include two meteor showers, a rare chance to see the Red Planet in opposition, and a “Blue Moon.”
Draconid meteor showers (October 7, 2020)
The Draconid meteor showers will put on the best show after sunset on October 7, 2020 (Credit: NASA/George Varros / Public domain)
Named after the constellation Draco, from where they seem to emerge, the Draconid meteor showers are the debris left behind by the periodic comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Though encountered annually in October, the short-lived showers, which will peak on October 7, 2020, produce only a handful of meteors per hour. However, given that the “shooting stars” are visible just after sunset, rather than late in the night like other meteor showers, they are worth seeking out.
Mars opposition (October 13, 2020)
Earth and Mars align in their orbit around the Sun approximately every 26 months (Credit: NASA)
Mars will be shining brightly in the night skies during the entire month of October. However, the best day to view it will be on October 13, when our planet will pass between it and the Sun. This will put the Red Planet in direct opposition to the star and at its closest distance — 38.59 million miles — to Earth. As a consequence, Mars will appear larger and — thanks to the Sun’s illumination — more vivid in the night sky than usual.
The phenomenon is similar to when the Earth gets between the Sun and the Moon with one exception — while our satellite is in opposition every month, Mars only gets to this position once about every 26 months. This means that the next chance to see the planet up close will be on December 8, 2022. The timing is due to the differing orbital periods of the two worlds. Earth, which is about 93 million miles away from the Sun, takes 365 days to revolve around the star, while Mars, which lies at a distance of 132 million miles, takes 687 days. Every time our faster-moving Earth catches up with the Red Planet, it results in perfect alignment or, what astronomers like to call opposition.
Orionid meteor shower (October 21 – 22, 2020)
Orionid meteor showers occur every October when Earth passes through the debris left behind by Halley’s Comet (Credit: NASA/JPL)
Produced when Earth encounters the cloud of dust and ice particles shed by Halley’s Comet during its 76-year-long orbit around the Sun, the Orionid meteors are considered to be one of the most beautiful showers of the year. Famous for their brightness and speed, the meteors travel at a rapid pace of 148,000 mph and leave behind a glowing “tail,” which can last for minutes.
This year, the “shooting stars” have been hurtling across the skies since September 23, 2020, and will continue to do so until November 27, 2020. However, your best chances of viewing them will be late at night on October 21, 2020, and before sunrise on October 22, 2020, when they will produce between 10 to 20 rapid fireballs per hour.
“Blue Moon” (October 31, 2020)
Nature has a special treat in store for Halloween — a rare “Blue Moon!” Before you get your hopes up, the moniker does not refer to the color of the satellite. Rather, it refers to the “once in a blue moon” appearance of a second full moon in a calendar month. “Most Blue Moons look pale gray and white, indistinguishable from any other moon you’ve ever seen,” says NASA. “Squeezing a second full moon into a calendar month doesn’t change the physical properties of the moon itself, so the color remains the same.” Though it may not look any different, having two full moons in the same month is a rare treat.
We usually witness just one full moon because it takes our satellite 29.5 days to go through its phases, approximately the same as our calendar month of 30 or 31 days. However, since our calendar year is based on the time it takes the Earth to circle the Sun, the “extra” days from the lunar cycle accumulate, and once every two and a half years, we end up with two full moons in a single month. The last time a “Blue Moon” graced our skies was on March 31, 2018, and the next time will not be until August 31, 2023.
Given that all the celestial events can be observed with your bare eyes and from the safety of your homes, you will have a chance to view them all. So mark your calendars and don’t forget to let us know your favorite one by adding your comments below.
Resources: Earthsky.org, Space.com, Forbes.com