What’s in store for skywatchers this fall? Planets galore and the moon’s shadow

If you are an early-riser, the fall predawn sky is a delight to see.

The stars of winter — Orion the Hunter, Gemini the Twins and the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius — are all currently on full display. Add to that the brilliant planet Venus and elusive Mercury and you have a skywatcher’s dream.

Venus is unmistakable in the eastern sky around 4:30 a.m. EDT and will climb higher in the D.C. region’s skies in the weeks to come.

Mercury becomes visible in the east in the brightening predawn sky around 6 a.m. It really helps to have a clear horizon and binoculars to help in locating Mercury. Mercury will brighten a bit and remain visible until the end of September.

Between higher Venus and lower Mercury is the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion. They form a very nice diagonal line from Mercury to Venus.

Mercury, bottom, leads to the star Regulus and brilliant Venus. (WTOP/Greg Redfern)

Right after it gets dark, the planet Saturn is visible in the southeast, and the moon will keep it company on the night of Sept. 26 and Sept. 27. Bright Jupiter joins the sky scene in the east around 11 p.m., with the Moon passing by the night of Oct. 1.

Fall will be upon us Sept. 23 at 2:50 a.m. EDT, with the sun rising due east that day. The nights will become longer and the days shorter as the sun moves along the horizon ever closer to winter.

There is another historic fall event the very next day as NASA’s first-ever asteroid sample return mission is due to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and land in Utah.

NASA’s Goddard Visitor Center has invited the public to a watch party at NASA’s Goddard Visitor Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to celebrate the first U.S. mission, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security — Regolith Explorer) to collect a sample from an asteroid and deliver it to Earth on Sept. 24.

NASA will broadcast and stream this milestone event live on NASA TV and social media starting at 10 a.m.

NASA will unveil this sample from the Bennu asteroid on Oct. 11, during a news conference at 11 a.m., which will air live on NASA Television, the NASA app and the agency’s website. During the event, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx science team will discuss an initial analysis of the sample.

Finally, as the moon travels across the sky, it is headed for a rendezvous with the sun on Oct. 14. The new moon on that date will pass directly in front of the sun, giving skywatchers either a partial or annular eclipse.

For the D.C. area, there will be a partial solar eclipse, with about 30% of the sun covered by the moon.

To safely view this eclipse, you have to use proper eye protection whenever looking at or photographing the sun. You must follow the safety guidance provided by the American Astronomical Society. Don’t wait, order safe and ISO compliant solar eclipse glasses.

Follow my daily blog to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. You can email me at skyguyinva@gmail.com.

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