Tricks on terra-firma, treats overhead


Halloween and cross-quarter day comes this Friday with a first quarter moon,
followed by All Saints Day November 1st. And then, clocks go back Sunday one hour to Standard Time. Late summer constellations at dusk in the west, Orion peeks above the horizon in the east at 11:00 pm. Mars in the evening, Jupiter in the morning. Watch the moon grow to full this week.

October 27, 2014


[Dave Heller] ‘Tis the week to catalog treats and tricks in the night sky with Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. Derrick, a Friday Halloween promises an especially big treat for retailers this year in what is an ever growing consumer spending spree. Is it a celebration of hobgoblins, cross-quarters or both?

[Derrick Pitts] It turns out it’s both, because this particular holiday recognizes the ghouls and goblins and the otherwise gone spirits of the year. And in fact, the very next day November 1 is All Saints Day, as a way to combat all of the evil spirits and things like that that have come out on the All Hollows Eve. We call it Halloween. But as it turns out, it is also a cross-quarter day — that’s why it’s both. Because it’s the point at which we’re about halfway between the first day of fall and the first day of winter.

So we have Friday, Halloween, and we have All Saints Day Saturday. And Sunday I always think of as the day of mourning — it’s when we turn the clocks back.

In this case it is a day of mourning, and particularly 2:00 in the morning. Because that’s the time when we turn our clocks back, or you can always turn your clocks back before you go to bed on Saturday night, because we now lose an hour as we go from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time. So here we are now, Standard Time, coming on as the actual time that more closely matches what the sun is doing than the other part of the year. We artificially adjust our timing so that we can have more light in the evening during the summer, but then we revert back to what is more natural when we come around to this time of year. We have to remember that the way in which the timing change is done was actually laid out by Congress in an effort to try and figure out how much energy we could save if we move these times of when Standard Time begins and Daylight Saving Time begins, and it’s a long experiment. So, we have a ways to go before we find out how this really turns out for us, but that’s why it’ll feel a little strange that we have this time change so early in the month of November.

So there’s no firm sense of that accounting ledger, whether we truly save by changing the clock around a couple times a year.

Not yet. It’s actually kinda dicey how you do that, because how are we going to figure out how much energy we’re going to save? I mean, if we change our clocks back in one way, then we’re going to use extra energy because the sunrise doesn’t come until much later in the morning, and how are we going to balance that against the end of the day when sunset is going to come earlier anyway. So when we put all these things together, it may come out that if we just stick with the sun everything will balance out nicely.

And then when the sun does emerge, I understand that it’s particularly active now.

As it turns out, it seems that this fall sun has been very active. There have been lots of medium class and what’s been called “x-class” flares. Medium flares, of course, are about the middle of the pile in terms of energy and strength. The x-class are the really strong ones. We’ve had a couple of x-class flares, low on that scale of x, and we’ve had several medium class flares on the high side of medium. So it seems as if the sun is fairly active. Now this does seem to fit in with where the sun is in its regular cycle of activity. You know, the sun has this seven year cycle of activity that goes from minimum up to a maximum and then back down to a minimum again. And right now we’re just slightly off the peak of the sun’s maximum activity for this particular cycle. And what that means is that there could possibly be some auroral activity for people who live at the extremes – up closer toward the North Pole, and folks closer to the South Pole. So if you happen to be further north at this time of year, well, keep an eye out on the evening skies and see if you can pick up any of the beautiful coloring that’s created when the solar particles come down into the Earth’s magnetic fields, spin around, get all the molecules excited there and cause them to put out some light.

The aurora is beautiful to behold, though with the x-class activity are we also prepared for some of the more disruptive effects on planet Earth?

Well, we think about it and we’re aware of what can happen. And there have been instances in the past where intense solar activity has caused some problems, particularly in the power distribution systems. But as far as any real lasting effects or directly personal effects for people, there hasn’t been very much of that. And the reason why is because we have this protective magnetic field that makes it possible for life to exist on the Earth with all the kind of stuff that goes on from the sun, what we get from the sun. And you really have to have very, very intense solar activity for any of the major deleterious effects to reach right down to the surface and effect us individually. So the first things we might think about are how wireless communications are disrupted either through satellite communication or by our smart phone communication that uses cell towers and things like that. If we had that kind of really, really high intensity solar activity, we would be seeing auroral activity this far south. But so far in this cycle, we haven’t seen any of that.

Hey, with good weather what planets and/or constellations will be guiding the trick-or-treaters Friday night?

A really wonderful thing about this Halloween is there’s a first quarter moon. Perfect! Perfect for Halloween. Not the full moon, but the first quarter – makes it a little bit more mysterious, if you will. And there’s some beautiful coloration in the evening sky over in the southwest just after sunset. The planet Mars glows orange over in the southwest, relatively easy to see. You have to remember: stars twinkle, planets don’t. That will make it easier to identify Mars from the other objects in the region. And then over in the morning sky — oh, easily several hours before sunrise — Jupiter makes its appearance, and it’s very high in the eastern sky at sunrise. Mercury is very, very low in the east about an hour before sunrise, but we have great constellations in the evening just after sunset. We have the beautiful summer constellations coming down to rest on the western horizon. And then by 11 p.m. the constellation Orion the Hunter is peeking above the eastern horizon, letting us know that winter is not too far away.

  • Brad Russell blocks the farm light as Orion sets at 2AM. Photo by Flickr user John Andersen

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