Halloween is a great opportunity to show kids and their parents the wonders of the universe through a telescope. Trick-or-treating is often on the weekend before Halloween or October 31st itself. Although there are many locations that trick-or-treat strictly in daylight, there are others that still often go out in darkness. Canada and Alaska have no choice because darkness comes earlier to them, and places in the United States are returning to the old tradition of trick-or-treating in the evening. Halloween parties generally occur in the nighttime also, all giving people opportunities to set up their telescope or point out features of the night sky.
Early Evening Hours
The best thing to show kids in the early evening are the brightest objects, which are typically planets and the moon, when they are up. In 2017, The full moon occurs on October 5. On October 6th the moon will be a little past full but still rising just a couple hours after sunset. Show your audience the moon through a telescope and point out the division of light and dark on the surface called the terminator. This is where the best views are had. The moon also passes by the Pleiades star cluster, a great target for binoculars. In the eastern United States the moon will even occult (pass in front of) some of the stars of this cluster.
Jupiter is low in the southwest setting soon after the sun in 2017. It will be the brightest thing in this portion of the sky. Turn a telescope on it to try to spot the four brightest moons of Jupiter: Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, and Io. Just a little over 4 degrees to the upper right of Jupiter is NGC 6369, or the Little Ghost. This planetary nebula will be a real challenge to see, though, because it is a dim 13th magntidue.
Later Evening Hours
When Orion begins to rise over the eastern horizon there are many target that you can point out to observers. The bright star in Orion’s shoulder is Betelgeuse, a name which was borrowed in a spooky movie from 1988. The movie, named Beetlejuice, does not have a lot of relationship to the star but it is an interesting thing to note on Halloween. The real Betelgeuse, pronounced “Bet – el – jooz,” is a huge supergiant star that is the 10th brightest in our sky.
The blue-white giant at the opposite corner of Orion is the star Rigel. Rigel is another bright star that marks the knee of Orion. It is brighter than Betelgeuse and the 7th brightest star in our sky. Just off of Rigel is a Halloween-sounding observing treat called the Witch Head Nebula, or IC 2118. The light from Rigel is illuminating the Witch’s Head, which looks like the profile of a crone’s face in the nebula. The nebula is extremely large but also faint, and is a bit of a challenge to see.
In the middle of Orion are its three stars in a line that making it easy to find and marks his belt. Hanging down from the first of the three stars is Orion’s sword. On the first of the belt stars is the Horsehead Nebula, a faint object best seen in photographs. Looking farther down, one of the stars that marks the sword should appear fuzzy with the unaided eye. This is the Orion Nebula, M42, which can be seen with out optical aid, but shows more structure through binoculars or a telescope.