In the Sky: October

October will be a special month in the sky with much to enjoy. The main event will be on October 14 when an annular eclipse of the Sun will move along a narrow path from the central Oregon coast to the central Texas coast. At maximum eclipse, the Sun will appear as a narrow ring of light around the Moon. This happens because the Moon will be a little farther than its average distance from Earth, so it will be too small to completely cover the Sun. Since the resulting ring of sunlight will leave the sky only slightly darker, an annular eclipse is not as dramatic as a total solar eclipse. However, it will still be worth observing. Outside of the narrow eclipse path, there will be a partial eclipse of the Sun.

Three bright planets will be in the sky during October. Brilliant Venus will be at its highest point in the morning sky and will rise about four hours before the Sun. After early November, it will begin to slowly drift lower in the sky. Saturn will be the only bright “star” midway up in the southern evening sky. It will be in the constellation Aquarius (the Waterbearer) to the lower right of its dim water jug and far above the only other bright star, Fomalhaut in Piscis Austrinus (the Southern Fish).

Very bright Jupiter will rise in the eastern sky at about 8:30 as October begins and during evening twilight at the end of the month. It will be in the zodiacal constellation Aries (the Ram) at least a fist width at arm’s length below a nearly horizontal line of its three moderately bright stars. The two brighter stars on the left are fairly easy to find and are about two finger widths apart. The third star is dimmer and less than a finger width to the lower right of the middle star. These three stars represent the horns and head of the ram. A much dimmer star farther to the left (east) represents the ram’s body.

Jupiter will be moving slowly in retrograde, or westward, motion and will do so until December. This should be observable by comparing the location of Jupiter to the brighter stars of Aries. Since an outer planet in retrograde motion moves westward slightly faster than the background stars, in ancient times it was referred to as moving ahead of the stars. ccording to a theory of Michael Molnar, this may have been the source of the phrase in the Bible, Matthew 2:9, when the Magi (astrologers) were on their way to Bethlehem and saw that the star that they had been observing “went ahead of them.”

When a planet ends retrograde motion, it stops before resuming its normal eastward motion. This was considered by ancient astrologers to be a time when a planet had its most powerful effects. It is also known that Jupiter referred to kings and that Aries referred to Judea. In late 6 B.C., during the time when Jesus may have been born, Jupiter stopped its retrograde motion in Aries. According to Molnar, this could be the source of the phrase in Matthew 2:9 that the star “stopped over the place (in the zodiac?) where the child was (Judea?)” If so, when the Magi saw this, it would explain why they were overjoyed (Matthew 2:10). This year we can also observe Jupiter’s retrograde motion in Aries much like the Magi may have seen it.

David Voigts is a retired ecologist and the current Conservation Chair for the Prairie Rapids Audubon Society. He is a Tama County native, graduating from Dinsdale High School, and lives in rural Jesup on his wife’s family farm.