Unless Betelgeuse goes supernova in the next four months, I think I will be remembering 2018 as the year the planets were so amazing in the evening sky. And there will be a dramatic finale in the skies over the River Valley this month. All you need is a clear view to the west and south. You can enjoy everything with just your eyes, though binoculars will help to spot things and a small telescope lets you see more details.
The show starts Sept. 11 when you may be able to catch a very thin crescent moon low in the west between sunset around 7:20 and moonset around 8:45. To the left of the moon in the southwest is Venus, brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon. By the next night, the moon has waxed a little fuller and can be seen above Venus. A small telescope shows Venus growing larger as it moves closer to Earth and its crescent phase waning as it moves closer to the sun this month. On Sept. 13, the crescent moon is near Jupiter, the third brightest object in the night sky. That’s Zubenelgenubi below the moon and Zubeneschamali above the moon.
The moon continues to wax and is above the red supergiant Antares on Sept. 15. The first quarter moon is to the right of Saturn on Sept. 16 and to its left on Sept. 17 in the southern sky. On Sept. 19, the waxing gibbous moon is above Mars in the southeast. Mars has dimmed some since its close approach back in July, but is still the fourth brightest object in the night sky. And any evening in September, you can be awed by the sight of four worlds gracefully arcing across the sky from southeast to southwest.
We can be wowed by such sights because the Driftless Area enjoys such starry skies. Even though the ridges and valleys can make it challenging to find the horizon, we are away from much of the sky glow of urban areas. And that makes it easier to connect with our homes in the Solar System, Milky Way and cosmos! You can learn more about dark skies at a special presentation by John Rummel at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. Rummel is an amateur astronomer and photographer and will be sharing stories of his search for the darkest skies. His talk is part of the Ralph Nuzum Driftless Dialogue Lecture series and is free. If skies are clear, we will be doing some star- and planet-gazing afterward. Enjoy all the starry sights of our dark Driftless skies as we wend our way from summer to fall with the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22.
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.