Starwatch: Ghostly visions in the night sky

Starwatch: Ghostly visions in the night sky

It’s the spookiest time of the year! Besides the many ghosts, goblins and demons who will be walking among us, there are natural, ghostly visions in the starry late-October skies.

The best celestial event to enhance Halloween this week will be a full moon. Unfortunately, we won’t exactly have a full moon this Wednesday night for Halloween, but it will be close enough as far as I’m concerned. The exact date of the full moon is Monday night, but on Wednesday evening the moon will still be more or less full, rising a little after 7 p.m. above the eastern horizon. By around 8 p.m., the Halloween moon will be higher in the eastern sky and you’ll notice that it has a starry companion trailing it to the lower left.

That bright tagalong is actually Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. It’s by far the brightest star-like object in the evening sky this autumn. It’s so bright because it’s so large, with a diameter of 88,000 miles, more than 10 times the diameter of Earth.

It’s also as bright as it is because Earth and Jupiter are approaching their minimum distance from each other this year. Jupiter is less than 400 million miles away right now, and by early December it will only be a little over 375 million miles from our terrestrial home. The big guy of the solar system may not be reachable even if you were to borrow a supersonic broomstick from a local witch, but it is close enough to really get a good look at it.

Even with just a pair of binoculars, you can see up to four of Jupiter’s bright moons that resemble tiny little stars on either side of the planet. They orbit Jupiter in periods of 2 to 17 days. With a small telescope you might see some of Jupiter’s cloud bands that stripe the big gaseous planet. I’ll have much more on Jupiter in the coming week.


Another Halloween celestial treat is the Pleiades star cluster, otherwise known as the Seven Little Sisters. You should have no problem finding it, even if you’re stargazing from an area plagued with light pollution. In fact, the Pleiades are also seen in the east early in the evening, visible as soon as it’s dark enough.

On Tuesday evening, the Seven Little Sisters will be just to the left of the moon, and on Halloween evening, the tight little cluster of stars will be poised just above the waning full moon. With just your naked eye you can’t help but see that the Pleiades resembles a tiny Big Dipper. If your vision is sharp enough, you’ll see six to seven individual stars in that tight group of little shiners. Through binoculars or a telescope you’ll see many, many more.

Astronomically the Pleiades is a group of young stars about 410 light years away that were born together out of a huge cloud of hydrogen gas. Before that was known, many ancient cultures feared the appearance of the Pleiades as an omen of possible oncoming catastrophes. It was thought that when the Pleiades reached its highest point in the sky around midnight, disaster could strike. This high point of the Pleiades in the midnight hour occurs every year right around Halloween. Now, it didn’t mean that there would be a calamity every Halloween at midnight, but if one were in the works, that’s about the time it would happen. Keep your eyes open and stay alert!

If you’re enjoying Halloween in the countryside, there’s a really nice ghostly image in the heavens. It’s the Milky Way band, the thickest part of our home galaxy. This time of year it stretches from the northeast horizon to nearly overhead, and then on to the southwest horizon. This ghostly band is the combined light of the billions and billions of stars of our galaxy. Our sun and all of the stars that we see in our sky are all members of the Milky Way, a giant pinwheel of stars that may number around a half a trillion.

The spiral disk of our galaxy is over 100,000 light years in diameter, but only about 10,000 light years thick, although our galaxy’s center is much fatter than that. By the way, just one light year equals almost six trillion miles! When we see that Milky Way band, we’re looking edgewise into the plane of our galaxy’s disk.

Back in the "old" days, when people didn’t know about galactic structure, the Milky Way band took on a much more spiritual meaning. Different ancient cultures have various stories about that band, but many of them equate it with heaven and the life after our earthly existence.

The ancient Greeks considered the Milky Way band as the main street in "downtown" heaven, along which stood the palaces of the great gods. The common people or souls of heaven resided eternally in the suburbs away from the main drag of the hereafter. My favorite Milky Way lore comes from Native American tribes. They considered the band to be the collective light of the campfires of souls taking a break for the night on their way to the heavens.

Happy Heavenly Halloween!

What To Read Next
Get Local