6 amazing skywatching events to see this fall. Here's how
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Monday, September 21, 2015, 11:57 AM - Looking for the best skywatching events for the season? Here is your guide to the best celestial events of fall 2015.
September 27/28 - The Lunar Tetrad is completed
On the night of Sept. 27, the full moon will pass directly through the darkest part of Earth's shadow, producing a total lunar eclipse, and this one is not to be missed.
Not only will this be the perigee full moon of 2015 – the closest and thus largest full moon of the year – but it will also be the final lunar eclipse of four in a row (a tetrad) and it will be visible, at least in part, to all of Canada.
Only regions to the east of Manitoba will be able to watch the entire eclipse – from the moment the moon begins to pass into the Earth's penumbra until it completely exits out the other side. The only part of the eclipse that the western half of the country misses, however, is the start, as the moon will have already begun its passage through the penumbra or umbra by the time it rises above the horizon.
Despite this, as long as the skies are clear, everyone – from the Maritimes to B.C. and everywhere in between–- will be able to see the full face of the moon turn red.
This map shows the hours (all in local times) when the moon will turn red during the eclipse, which is the most noticeable portion of the eclipse. To watch the entire eclipse, for those who can, head outside roughly an hour before those times and stick around for another hour after the moon loses its red tinge.
The lunar tetrad is a special event that happens every decade or two, when four total lunar eclipses occur within the span of two years. The last tetrad was in 2003-2004, and the next one will be in 2032-2033.
The eclipses of the current tetrad took place on:
April 15, 2014 – visible from all of Canada
October 8, 2014 – visible from the Pacific Ocean and Western Canada
April 4, 2015 – visible from the Pacific Ocean and the west coast of Canada
September 27, 2015 – visible from almost all of Canada
October 21 - Orionid meteor shower
The Orionid meteor shower is notable as the second meteor shower of the year produced by Earth passing through debris left behind by Comet 1P/Halley (aka Halley's Comet).
Although the Orionids do not approach the number of meteors produced by the August Perseids, skywatchers can still see up to around 20 meteors every hour under a clear, dark sky.
The best time to watch this shower will be after midnight, once the first-quarter moon has set in the west.
October 28 - Conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars
Meteor showers and eclipses are great, but it's not often that you see three bright planets so close to each other in the sky.
Early in the morning of October 28, Venus, Jupiter and Mars will be clustered together in the eastern sky. You can watch the trio pop up above the eastern horizon starting at around 3:30 a.m., and they'll remain visible until sunrise (and possibly slightly after). If you watch closely enough, you may even be able to spot Mercury rising just as the eastern sky begins to brighten.
For a preview of the show (especially for those in more light polluted regions, who may not be able to see Mars), check the eastern sky before sunrise on October 25 or 26. Those morning, Jupiter and Venus will be at their closest, before they pull away from one another and draw closer to Mars for the 28th.
November 11 - The Taurid "double" meteor shower
On the nights of October 23 and November 11, two meteor showers that originate from nearly the same point in the sky will be peaking. The Northern Taurids and Southern Taurids are sometimes referred to as a "double peaked" meteor shower due to this, but they apparently originate from two different objects - asteroid 2004 TG10 and Comet 2P/Encke, respectively.
The remarkable thing about these two meteor showers isn't the number of meteors they produce, as they only seem to come up with about five per hour during their peak night, but rather with the fireballs they can produce – some so bright that they're considered bolides.
While the October 23 Southern Taurids peak will very likely go by relatively unnoticed, according to the American Meteor Society, the November 11 Northern Taurids peak could be pretty spectacular.
This is due to an unusual periodic outburst of exceptional fireballs from the Northern Taurids stream, that occurs every 7 years. Since the last outburst was in 2008, this year's peak could be the next one.
November 17 - Leonids meteor shower
Another meteor shower that goes through periodic outbursts of activity, the Leonids typically produce about 15 meteors per hour at its peak, but can sometimes turn into meteor storms - with hundreds of meteors per hour.
Originating from material left behind by Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun every 33 years, these outbursts tend to follow visits from the comet. The last outburst was in 2001, following its 1998 pass around the Sun. However according to the American Meteor Society, the next two passes - in 2031 and 2064 - do not appear to have the dense clouds of debris associated with them, so we will have to wait until 2099 for the next Leonid meteor storm.
Still, for anyone under clear, dark skies, this meteor shower should still provide some entertainment.
Best viewing, AKA "a clear, dark sky"
Time and time again you will see the phrase "clear, dark sky" when it comes to watching meteor showers and other celestial events, but that does this mean, and why does it matter?
As for the "clear" part, the weather will, of course, be a big factor when it comes to whether or not one of these events will be visible from a specific location. Rain and snow can make for a miserable time outdoors, but a cloudy sky will make it impossible to see what's going on in the sky. Even high humidity can make it difficult to see anything, especially when you consider the next two factors.
When it comes to having a "dark sky" there are two things to consider.
The moon can easily spoil the show when it comes to some viewing events, especially when it's a full moon. The amount of light it casts can easily overwhelm dim meteors, so that they go unnoticed by us here on the ground.
Possibly worse than the effects of the moon is light pollution, due to its insidious nature and the fact that we could actually control this, if we only took the time.
Many people who live in or near urban centres are disappointed when they go outside to see a meteor shower, and even though the night sky is clear of clouds, and the moon is nowhere to be seen, they still only spot one or two meteors, or perhaps none at all.
Since the majority of meteors are fairly dim – even during a very strong shower such as the Perseids or the Geminids – they can only be seen if there are no competing sources of light beyond the stars.
Street lights, car lights, building lights, signs, etc, all contribute as competition, and the bigger the urban centre, the more light shines up into the atmosphere. Since this bright glow around cities is an unintended consequence (and unwanted for anyone who wants an unobstructed view of the night sky), it is called light pollution.
For much of Canada, simply taking a short drive outside of the town or city will result in a sky dark enough to see most of these events. However, southwestern Ontario and the St. Lawrence Valley are some of the worst regions in Canada to watch from, as shown in the map below:
Any area shaded red, yellow or green, along with regions near them, is going to have at least some impact from light pollution.
There are ways to control light pollution, mostly by changing the kinds of lights we use outdoors, and how we angle the light produced by them. These abatement methods typically result in lower costs, as well, as less electricity is used to power these lights. However, light pollution continues to be a problem.
There are some areas scattered about in these regions, known as Dark Sky Preserves, which are far enough away from city lights to allow good viewing conditions.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article listed the September Total Lunar Eclipse as occurring on the night of the 28th. The correct date of the eclipse for Canada is the night of 27th. This has been corrected. We apologize for any confusion or inconvenience.
Watch More: Timelapse of a Lunar Eclipse