Driftless Dark Skies

John Heasley

We enjoy such starry skies in the rural areas along the Wisconsin River. Late fall is an excellent time to be amazed by them. The skies darken earlier and the nights are longer. The sun sets before 5 p.m. and the sky is fully dark by 6:30 p.m. Mosquitoes are gone. Humidity is lower. The stars are brighter in the crisp skies. And it’s such a safe outdoor activity. Yes, it’s colder, but we know how to dress for the weather. Kiddos lose heat at a faster rate, so bundle them up. You won’t be moving much, so layer for about 20 degrees cooler than the temperature.

It’s fun to track the moon as it rises a little later each evening and goes through all its phases during the month. Binoculars let you explore its craters and plains and mountains even better. Venture into the sights and sounds and smells of the nocturnal world by walking when the moon is full. The Full Frost Moon lights up the landscape Nov. 29-30. If you’re out early the morning of Nov. 30, you might even notice a little dimming of the moon as it passes through the shadow of the earth in a penumbral eclipse.

Venus “the morning star” is brilliant in the east before sunrise. It’s lovely with the waning crescent moon on Nov. 12 and 13 (when you might see Mercury below it). Jupiter and Saturn are close together in the southwest after sunset. Jupiter is the brighter of the two and Saturn is to its left. (Watch as they draw closer together until they meet in a Grand Conjunction on Dec. 21, the evening of the winter solstice. This happens only every 20 years.) The waxing crescent moon passes by them Nov. 18 and 19. Mars is especially bright this season and glows like an ember in the southern sky. The waxing gibbous moon meets up with the Red Planet on Nov. 25.

When we think of meteor showers, most of us think of the Perseids in August. But there is another nice shower: the Leonids on Nov. 16-17. No moonlight interferes with them in 2020. Bundle up, bring a warm beverage, get comfy on a lounge chair, and look up. These bright streaks of comet dust can show up in any part of the sky. They peak after midnight, but there are quite a few to see in the evening an hour or so after sunset.

One thing I especially miss in 2020 is sharing astronomy programs at public libraries and star parties at parks. It is reassuring to know that folks can still be looking up together even as we keep safely apart.  

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies above.