October: Meteors, constellations, and sights in the clouds

The large red nebula NGC 2014 and its smaller circular blue neighbour NGC 2020 are part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. NGC 2020 has been shaped by a solitary mammoth star called a Wolf-Rayet, which has ejected its outer layers of gas to expose its searing-hot core, making it roughly 200,000 times brighter than our sun. Photo: MPAS member Nik Axaris

After the wonderfully rich views of the southern winter, October night skies look rather empty, with the exception of the bright planets Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. However, this does not mean there is nothing else to see. Looking south, you can locate the constellations Phoenix, Grus, Tucana, Pavo, and the long and winding Eridanus. The constellation Sagittarius, the Archer, lies low in the west.

There are several objects that make good targets for even modest amateur equipment. Look south to find the constellation Tucana, the Toucan. Within the boundaries of this constellation you can see 47 Tucanae, or NGC 104, one of the best globular clusters in the night sky. With the naked eye it appears as a slightly fuzzy star. Near 47 Tucanae lies the galaxy known as the Small Magellanic Cloud, or SMC, which is a great target for a small telescope or a pair of binoculars and can also be seen with the naked eye. A hop over the constellation Hydrus, or the Little Water Snake, takes you to the constellations Dorado and Mensa, where you will find the Large Magellanic Cloud, or LMC. Binoculars or small telescopes reveal many star clusters and patches of nebulosity within the LMC.

Conjunctions to look out for this month include Jupiter close to the moon on October 2, Venus and the moon on October 10, Saturn and the moon on October 24, then the moon and Jupiter on October 29.

Also occurring is the annual Orionid meteor shower. Orionids are active every year in October, this year peaking on the night of October 21-22 when there are potentially up to 15 meteors visible every hour. The Orionid is the second annual meteor shower created by Halley’s Comet. No special equipment or a lot of skill is required to view a meteor shower. All you really need is a clear sky and lots of patience. For optimum viewing, find a secluded spot away from the city lights. Once you have found your viewing spot, make sure you are comfortable, especially if you plan to stay out long – meteor watching can be a waiting game.

By Nerida Langcake
This article appeared in the October 2023 issue of the Mornington Peninsula Magazine.