Fall stargazing is really special. Nobody wants summer to end, but when it does, and the temperatures cool, it seems we all breathe a collective sigh of relief as the frenzy of summer slows down. We settle into this little moment of quietness before the holiday season hits us.
Even the night sky slows down from the blaze of exciting summer constellations. We shift from the brilliant stars of Scorpius, Sagittarius, and the Summer Triangle, to more subtle stars that urge you to slow down and allow your eyes to adapt to the dark to see more details.
Fall treats us with many great things to see in the night sky. Here’s what you can expect.
Unless you’ve been meticulously tracking the sun over the past year, you won’t visibly notice the equinox. But it’s worth remembering that it is a celestial event that takes us into a new season. Earth has reached the point in its orbit around the sun where its axis is perpendicular to the sun. This position gives us a nearly equal amount of day and night.
The Fall Equinox was important to nearly all cultures in the Northern Hemisphere and was often associated with themes of harvest. You can learn more about some of those cultural traditions in the Night Sky Tourist podcast episode titled “Fall Equinox Special.”
This is the midway point between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice and a time celebrated by many cultures. Our Halloween holiday in modern times was derived from cross-quarter day celebrations.
You can learn more about cross-quarter days in my blog article titled “The Little-Known Link between Holidays and Cross-Quarter Days.”
You can also learn more about Halloween on my podcast episode titled “Celestial Origins of Halloween.”
FALL FULL MOONS
Every 29.5 days, we have another Full Moon. Most of the time, there are only three full moons each season. Occasionally, there will be four. This usually happens if there is a Full Moon just a few days after the Fall Equinox. When that happens, we get a Blue Moon.
Many cultures around the world gave names to the Full Moons. Those names related to something happening in nature at that time. Here are some of the Full Moons of Fall according to various Native American cultures.
- SEPTEMBER: Harvest Moon, Corn Moon, Wine Moon, Barley Moon (The Full Moon closest to the Fall Equinox is called the Harvest Moon, and sometimes it comes in the beginning of October instead of September.)
- OCTOBER: Drying Rice Moon, Falling Leaves Moon, Freezing Moon
- NOVEMBER: Beaver Moon, Frost Moon, Mourning Moon
- DECEMBER: Cold Moon, Moon Before Yule, Long Night Moon
Here’s how to visualize the ecliptic. Imagine that Earth’s equator could stretch like a rubber band way out into space until it touched the stars. There are twelve constellations spread across that band that astronomers call the ecliptic. You might have also heard it called the zodiac.
There are four constellations that dominate the ecliptic during the Fall months:
All four of these constellations are made of somewhat dim stars when compared to Sagittarius in summer or Orion in winter. If you’re under light-polluted skies, it can take some time for your eyes to adjust so you can see these. If you’re in an urban area, you might not see them at all.
Use a stargazing app to help you locate all the stars of each of these. Take your time. The exploration is part of the fun.
- Pleiades (this is actually part of Taurus, which is barely coming into view in the Fall evenings)
- Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major)
- Polaris (North Star, part of Ursa Minor)
Greek mythology gives us an interesting story for some of these constellations. Andromeda was the daughter of Cepheus, king of Aethiopia, and Cassiopeia, his wife. Cassiopeia gets to bragging about her beauty and how she’s even more beautiful than the Nereids, who were sea nymphs, or female spirits of the sea. Poseidon, the god of the sea, got tired of her bragging and decided to dish out a punishment for all of Aethipoia by ravaging its coast.
Realizing that something must be done to appease Poseidon’s anger, Andromeda was chained to a rock on the shore as a sacrifice. When Perseus heard about this, he decided to step in and be the hero by rescuing Andromeda from certain death. Perseus was the greatest hero and slayer of monsters before Hercules came along. He took Andromeda to Greece where he married her and let her reign as queen.
FALL BIRD MIGRATIONS:
If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot flocks of birds as they pass between you and the Moon. Birds mostly migrate at night, and in the Fall, they’re heading South by the billions to stay warm.
You can learn about how light pollution impacts migratory birds in my podcast episode titled “Light Pollution & Nocturnal Migratory Birds with Andrew Farnsworth.”
TIPS FOR FALL STARGAZING
To get the most out of your Fall stargazing experience, plan to spend a little extra time under the stars so your eyes have time to adapt to the darkness. Doing this will help you to see more stars. Here are some other tips to help your eyes adjust faster:
- Turn off all artificial lights around you.
- Avoid using your smartphone, but if you want to use a stargazing app, prep your phone in advance. Turn the screen brightness down and set it to night mode to give your screen a redder hue instead of blue. Then, open your stargazing app so it will be ready to go.
- Avoid using a white flashlight. If you need a flashlight to help you safely navigate to your stargazing spot, use a red flashlight or attach red cellophane to your flashlight with a rubber band.
- If you think you’re going to try taking photos, turn off the camera flash before you head outside.
If you’re under light-polluted skies, try planning a trip to a darker location for an evening. I promise that it will be worth the effort to see those more subtle constellations.
Make a list of things that will make your Fall stargazing more pleasurable. Here are some ideas to help you get your list started:
- Warm clothing- layers, jackets, warm footwear, hats, etc.
- Hot drinks- hot chocolate, tea, or try a fun Moon Milk recipe
- Stargazing app on your smartphone
- Red flashlight
- Laser pointer- I use a green tactical laser but don’t point at people or planes
- The latest episode of the Night Sky Tourist podcast with the guided stargazing tour at the end of the episode
- * Optional- binoculars
- * Optional- telescope
And finally, find ways to engage all of your senses. This is a nature experience and should be enjoyed with more than just the eyes. These two podcast episodes will give you some great ideas for maximizing your time in nature at night:
- Episode 22- “Sketching the Night Sky with John Muir Laws”
- Episode 35- “Wild Nights Out with Chris Salisbury”
Happy stargazing under the Fall night sky.