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The Sky This Week, 2015 October 27 - November 3

Change your clocks and celebrate the dark.
Aurora_151009_03small.jpg
Ghost lights in the sky
The Northern Lights, 2015 October 9
Imaged from the M/V "Nordnorge" somewhere near Svolvær, Norway

The Moon waxes from the Hunter’s Moon this week, illuminating the late night and morning hours. Last Quarter occurs on November 3rd at 7:24 am Eastern Standard Time. Yes, it’s that time of the year again when we need to adjust our clocks to go off of daylight time. More on this below. Look for Luna just over three degrees east of the bright star Aldebaran on the late evening of the 29th. She’ll be just two degrees east of the second-magnitude star Alhena, rising late in the evening on Halloween.

If you’re up late after the trick-or-treaters have gone to bed, or you find yourself on early morning zombie patrol in the wee hours of November 1st, be sure to set your clocks back one hour at 2:00 am to return to "standard time". This annual ritual now takes place on the first Sunday in November thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress’ most recent modification of the Uniform Time Act of 1966. This Act establishes in U.S. Code the boundaries of the country’s time zones and specifies the dates that Daylight Time is in force. Daylight Time has always been controversial since its first introduction to our clocks in 1918, and many people today still don’t like it. Folks in Arizona are the only ones in the "lower 48" who don’t change their clocks during the course of the year; however, if you visit the Navajo Nation in the northeast corner of the state, you’ll need to obey the Daylight Time rules while there. To add to the confusion, the Hopi Reservation that lies within the Navajo Nation follows Arizona’s rules, so a drive through these regions will have you furiously adjusting your watch! If you are one of the many folks who don’t like the rules, you can contact the Department of Transportation, the civilian agency tasked with enforcing the Act’s requirements. Here at the Naval Observatory we keep only one time-scale, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), to which all American time-zones are tied, but we have no "say" in how that time is used!

October 31st is Halloween, once of my favorite times of the year. The leaves are turning, there’s a hint of winter in the air, and the neighborhood id awash with small ghosts, goblins, and sundry other characters. The observance of Halloween goes back many centuries to the time of the ancient Celts, who observed it as one of the seasonal astronomical markers. Since it occurs about mid-way between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, it is known as a "cross-quarter day" that was celebrated widely in Europe before the influence of Christianity took hold. This early observance was known as Samhain and was celebrated as a harvest festival marking the boundary between the days of light and the nights of winter’s darkness. It was also thought to be a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead drew closest, so a large part of the celebration included honoring ancestors and others who had passed into the underworld. When Christianity swept northern Europe the festival was incorporated into the feats of All Saints’ Day, which traditionally fell on November 1st. Carving a Jack O’ Lantern is a part of the tradition, imitating illuminated gourds and turnips lit to welcome the spirits of the dead to enter a home and partake of food and drink.

The Halloween evening skies are almost as dark as the spirits of the dead. The sky is in transition between the bright stars of summer setting in the west and the rising stars of winter in the east. Autumn’s constellations are for the most part made up of third- and fourth-magnitude stars and are extremely to trace out in light-polluted skies. Your best times to spy recognizable constellations are early in the evening and after midnight. Just after sunset the stars of the Summer Triangle begin to appear in the gathering twilight, heeling toward the west as darkness falls. As they dip to the west you can spot the rising stars of Taurus, Auriga, and Orion climbing up from the eastern horizon.

The bright planets are now confined to the morning sky where you’ll find Venus and Jupiter dominating the view before sunrise. The two planets had a spectacular conjunction on the 26th, and while Venus draws away from the giant planet the pair will remain a beautiful sight to the naked eye. If you look carefully you’ll see the much fainter ruddy glow of Mars just below the brighter pair. Over the course of the week Venus will close in on the red planet, and early risers on the 3rd will see them less than a degree apart. This sight will be worth getting up early for; just remember that it will be best seen at around 5:00 am Standard Time!

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