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Meteors, blue moon and Mars, oh my! Beautiful triple threat on tap for skywatchers

Orionid meteor shower.
Orionid meteor shower. (© 2012 Michael Orso)

October is going to be a busy month, astronomically speaking. There are three pretty big events happening that any skywatcher will want to take note of.

Mars

Earth will soon pass between Mars and the sun, and that means the Red Planet will be brighter than it has been at any time since July 2018.

Mars will appear brighter than at any other point during the year on Oct. 13, when it will be closest to Earth.

“Because of the distance of our orbits around the sun, it takes Mars longer to complete one orbit around the sun (687 days) than Earth (365 days),” meteorologist Paul Gross said. “So, a little over every two years, Mars and Earth are closest together in their orbits and, thus, Mars is at its brightest in our nighttime sky. It is indeed spectacular to watch!”

Mars will appear in the east, around sunset, and will have a reddish-orange glow to it.

The sharpest view of Mars ever taken from Earth was obtained by the refurbished NASA Hubble Space Telescope. This stunning portrait was taken on March 10, 1997, just before Mars opposition, when the Red Planet made one of its closest passes to Earth.  (Photo By Nasa/Getty Images)
The sharpest view of Mars ever taken from Earth was obtained by the refurbished NASA Hubble Space Telescope. This stunning portrait was taken on March 10, 1997, just before Mars opposition, when the Red Planet made one of its closest passes to Earth. (Photo By Nasa/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Orionid meteor shower

One of the most recognized constellations is Orion, and, you guessed it, that’s where these meteors originate.

“Every year, the Earth passes through the debris trail left behind by Halley’s Comet — twice,” Gross said. "Comets leave behind little bits of rock about the size of a Grape Nuts cereal nugget, and these fast-moving particles ‘burn up’ due to friction when they hit our atmosphere. Each time our planet passes through Halley’s debris trail, we get either the Orionid (in October) or Eta Aquariid (in early May) meteor showers.”

With about 20 meteors per hour on peak night, Gross said the best time to watch the Orionid meteor shower will be after the moon sets Oct. 20.

“That means a darker sky, which means a better chance to see some,” Gross said.

He added that, though the Orionids tend to be fainter meteors, they have long tails that last a bit longer than the typical meteor.

Because the moon will sit below the horizon on this particular night, experts say there will be little natural light to pollute the sky.

Gross said the best time to watch will be between 11 p.m. and pre-dawn, but noted that those early-morning hours on Oct. 21 will be the best since, “Orion rises in the southeast in the evening, and gets higher in the sky as the night progresses.”

As someone who is well versed in this, Gross says, “(It’s) pretty amazing how little the bits of stuff burn so bright that high up that we can see them.”

Orionid meteor shower.
Orionid meteor shower. (© 2012 Michael Orso)

Blue moon on Halloween

For the first time since 2001, trick-or-treaters will get the chance to experience a Halloween full moon. Even if you’re staying indoors to avoid being exposed to COVID-19, you can still take a step outside after nightfall and catch a glimpse.

A blue moon, by the most popular definition, according to Gross, is when two full moons appear in a single month.

“We will have full moons on Oct. 1 and 31, so that means that we’ll have a blue moon on Halloween,” Gross said.

Astronomers predict after this year, we won’t see a 100%-illuminated Halloween full moon until 2039.

Since it will be a rare occurrence, make sure, despite your plans, you take a peek.

Full moon. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
Full moon. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images) (2020 Gilbert Carrasquillo)

With three events to choose from, there’s no reason not to catch at least one.

Which of these events are you most excited to see in October?


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