The night sky has inspired people for centuries. People across millennia, throughout the world, named the constellations and told stories of their formation.
The evening sky is an awe-inspiring part of our heritage that continues to evoke wonder. The most profound story that the night sky tells us is that we are not alone. When we look up at the stars and realize the vastness of space, we understand that we are not the only thing to exist in the universe. We share time and space with other objects in the cosmos.
The stars are guideposts for travelers. Voyagers navigated their boats through the Pacific Islands using only the stars and the ocean currents. Vikings also relied on celestial bodies to get from place to place. Indigenous groups observe the stars in the same way that they observe plants, animals and all of nature.
Earlier societies depended on the stars so their knowledge on the known sky was plentiful. Most people no longer depend on the sky to keep track of the date or directions. The breadth of those who study the sky is much narrower.
Yet, the depth of what we know is greater due to advanced technology. These technology advances stemmed from those who wondered about the sky: the stars, the planets, and everything beyond the naked eye.
The skies that our ancestors looked at are nearly the same skies above us today. However, they appear vastly different due to light pollution. Having grown up in the greater Chicagoland area, I did not see the Milky Way until I was 20 years old while working at a camp in Colorado.
Fortunately, you will not need to go out west to see the Milky Way or deep sky objects. There is an International Dark-Sky Park in Illinois at Middle Fork River Forest Preserve. It was accredited by the International-Dark Sky Association in 2018.
Middle Fork River Forest Preserve is a refuge for Midwestern stargazers. Just northeast of Champaign-Urbana, it’s only about an hour drive from Kankakee County. Whether you’re an amateur star enthusiast or a serious backyard astronomer, it’s worth checking out on a clear night.
The moon is the one object in the night sky that everybody can identify. It is visible regardless of where you’re located. On Thursday, the waxing gibbous moon with sit below Jupiter and Saturn all evening.
You’ll see this month’s full moon on Oct. 20. Traditionally this moon is called Hunter’s Moon or Blood Moon. Binaakwe-giizis is the name given to this moon by the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes region. Binaakwe-giizis translates to “Falling Leaves Moon.”
The Orionids meteor shower peaks on Oct. 21. You could see 10 to 20 meteors per hour on this night, but the bright moon will make it difficult to see them. However, the Orionids are visible through Nov. 27, so you’ll still have plenty of chances to catch some meteors.
Pegasus is visible around 8:15 p.m. It’s easily recognizable by its asterism, The Great Square.
Most deep sky objects can be found with binoculars and telescopes. This month the large, spiral Andromeda Galaxy, Messier 31 will be climbing the northeastern sky. The Andromeda Galaxy is just to the left of Alpheratz, the star in the upper left corner of the square of Pegasus.
The simplest way to locate Andromeda is to follow Cassiopeia, one of our circumpolar constellations that never sets. It appears as a W in the sky; the deeper V of the constellation acts as an arrow pointing toward the Andromeda Galaxy.
Jupiter continues to dazzle through the night. It can be seen on the south-eastern horizon at dusk traveling higher through the sky until about 2 a.m. You should be able to see it’s great red spot every few days, and you can track its moons as well.
Saturn appeared to be at a standstill since Oct. 11 as it ended retrograde. Meanwhile, Neptune is visible with binoculars or a telescope from sunset until the early morning hours.
You can continue to catch Venus right after sunset all month. On Oct. 29 it will reach its greatest elongation 47 degrees east of the sun. If you’re able to view it in a telescope, it will appear half-illuminated. After that it will continue to brighten and increase in apparent size.
I urge you to get outside and be amazed by the skies that have evoked wonder from people across the world for hundreds of generations. If you’d like to see what the night sky would look in Kankakee County without light pollution, a trip to the planetarium might be in order. With the planetarium you see the stars regardless of the weather forecast.
Check out the upcoming show schedule for Strickler Planetarium at strickler.olivet.edu.