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Shropshire Sky At Night – October

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This year British Summer Time ends on October 27, ensuring darker evenings, with the sun setting as at the earlier time of 16.50, and getting earlier, by a few minutes every day until midwinter's day.

Orion, a familiar signpost in the winter sky. Picture: P. Williamson.

This heralds the start of a new observing season for many stargazers, as we do not need to wait into the unsociable hours for the dark skies.

As the sun dips below the horizon we experience civil twilight which is still too bright for stars to emerge and be seen with the naked eye. We have to wait a further 90 minutes after sunset for true night, and even then light pollution and a full moon can be a problem.

However as the evenings become darker astronomers delight in seeing the familiar constellations of Orion and Gemini make their appearances in the east.

Orion is used as one of the best pointers by stargazers to find their way round the winter sky. Its distinctive shape and colours make it a 'go to' object for so many new and experienced astronomers as it contains something for everyone.

The three stars of Orion's Belt are clearly identifiable between Orion's two brightest stars. Top left is the red supergiant Betelguese while bottom right is the blue hot younger star known as Rigel. Hanging from his belt is what is referred to as Orion's Sword, otherwise known as the Orion Nebula, an enormous cloud of gas and dust forming a stellar nursery where new stars are being born.

If you follow the line of Orion's Belt to the right you will come to another bright red supergiant, Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the bull. Continue along the same line and you will reach the Pleiades open star cluster, a binocular view not to be missed on a clear night. Also referred to as the Seven Sisters, they were once used to test eyesight by counting how many stars could be seen with the naked eye.

If you follow the belt to the left you will spot Sirius, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere. You should see it twinkling and changing colour which is due to its position close to the horizon.

Closer to home in the solar system the remote planet Uranus comes to opposition on October 28. This means that the Earth passes between the sun and the blue-green planet, producing the closest distance between them both.

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Given dark skies, keen observers will have the opportunity to spot it with the naked eye as the Moon is new at this time. Just look eastwards, about 30 degrees above the horizon around 8pm and you might just be lucky. However with a basic pair of 10 by 50 binoculars, Uranus is an easy target and if you have a telescope in the 3ins or 4ins class with a magnification of about 100, you should easily see the blue-green disk.

One of the many good planetarium programmes, available free for most smartphones, would be an excellent aid to seeking out this icy world.

The Shropshire Astronomical Society, which meets monthly on the second Saturday at Little Ness Village Hall and on the third Saturday at Rodington Village Hall, hosts a wide range of observing event, and always welcomes experienced or novice stargazers. For further information visit www.shrophire-astro.uk

Steve Szwajkun is a member of Shropshire Astronomical Society

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