Hey, Sky Fans!
The other night, we had one of our first clear nights in a months and months. I mean, really clear. I was even able to convince my kids to just spend a few minutes after all the homework sitting outside under the stars with a couple of cookies and some soda.
I love this time of year. The weather changes, night falls earlier, and the leaves gather at our feet, but the skies change, too. The Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31) made its way into the prime-time sky a few weeks ago. The Pleiades will be along any minute, and before long it’ll be Orion season.
In the meantime, let’s check in on a couple of our old friends.
Arcturus is one of my favorite stars. It’s the brightest star in Boötes — the only constellation with an umlaut in its name — and comes back to the night in early February, when the skies are still bleak and the trees are still bare. As great as the dark part of the year is, there’s always that “Okay, enough already” point, and Arcturus comes along at just the right time to push me through until the weather warms up a bit.
As we close out October, it’s in the closing days of its time with us for now. As you head out this evening, you should be able to just see it lingering, and seeming a little lost in the glowing oranges and yellows of another fall sunset. Try to head out before it’s too late. These late October and early November evenings are your last chances to it before it vanishes until it comes back next February.
All’s not lost when it goes, though.
When Arcturus leaves the stage for the winter, along comes another fantastic star: Capella, the brightest in Auriga. If you’re in the mid-north, around 40 degrees north latitude, it’s in the night sky from late October and crosses the sky until it, too, splits the scene in early summer.
These two are the second and fourth brightest stars in the northern hemisphere’s night sky. While there’s usually something brighter, one of them is with us, reliably and consistently, every night of the year. Can you name the others in the top five? I’ll put the answer down below.
Capella is back in the northwest now, and of all the changes that happen this time of year, more than the M31, more than the Pleiades, this might be my favorite. This week, right as we push deeper into fall, bright red Arcturus, which has been with us through the warm part of the year hands the nights off to mellow yellow Capella to guide us through the cold and dark times.
Heatwaves and cold snaps; s’mores and soup; cannonballs and candles, they’re there with us. Year after year, they’re with us. Every night of our lives, they’re with us.
The pair are about halfway across the sky from each other, but if you need a hand, we have a great tool for tracking them down. It’s low above the northern horizon these days, but the Big Dipper can get us to both. First, early in the evenings tonight, look toward the north, then follow the curve of the Dipper’s handle away from its bowl to, as the saying goes, “arc to Arcturus,” waving from the dusk. From there, as night darkens, draw a line across the top of the bowl toward the east — the Dipper’s right — to find Capella.
This hand-off is one of these moments that I almost… no, not almost… I feel honored to be able to watch. If you’re like me, night after night we get to watch these stars, find them in the night, check in with them, see where they are. Week after week, we see them grow and change, just like our family and friends do, and we watch as the cycle continues and a little more grey creeps in above our ears.
And people say nothing ever changes in the night sky. These are amazing times.
Okay, the five brightest stars in the northern hemisphere’s nights? Ready?
- Sirius (in Canis Major)
- Arcturus (in Boötes)
- Vega (in Lyra)
- Capella (in Auriga)
- Rigel (in Orion)
How’d you do?
Thanks for stopping by, everyone, and clear skies!