The night sky this fall should prove to be an exciting time for astronomers—novice and experienced alike.
Karen Kovach, planetarium coordinator at the Challenger Learning Center Northwest Indiana, said this fall's "big deal" is Comet ISON.
"It may or may not be the comet of the century," she said. "It's a comet that has never been seen before in our sky. It may be so bright that we could actually see it in the day time, or it may be no big deal at all."
On Nov. 28, the head of the comet is projected to pass 800,000 miles above the sun's surface. Astronomers say if it survives, the comet will turn past the sun, providing a spectacular display in the skies into December on its outbound leg of orbit.
As Kovach points out, an astronomer once said, "Comets are like cats, they both have tails and a mind of their own."
Shawn Slavin, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue Calumet, said it's also time to say goodbye to summer's constellations and hello to a new set visible to Northwest Indiana.
"The Great Square of Pegasus is now nearly overhead for Chicagoland viewers early in the evening," he said. "The winged horse flies into the western horizon around midnight."
The Big Dipper also skims Lake Michigan in the northern horizon, he said.
"Look for the two brightest stars on the pot, opposite the handle, which point upward at this time of year toward Polaris, the north star," Slavin said. "Polaris sits at the end of the ladle-shaped handle on the Little Dipper."
Meanwhile, characters from Greek myth are rising right behind Pegasus - "Beautiful Andromeda, brave Perseus, frightening Cetus the sea monster, and vain Cassiopeia, who circles the north celestial pole on her side, for half the year upside down as a punishment for her vanity," Slavin said.
Other prominent winter constellations such as Taurus, Orion, Gemini and Canis Major dominate the fall sky from late night to early morning, he said.
Slavin, along with fellow professor Adam Rengstorf, developed the Northwest Indiana Robotic Telescope, located at the Calumet Astronomy Center. The telescope gives researchers, educators and students an opportunity to see many of these constellations and other night sky inhabitants.
One of these shows that will light up the sky this month is the Leonid meteor shower, which should peak Nov. 17, Slavin said. Shooting stars should begin a couple days before and continue a couple days after the evening of the peak event.
"All meteor showers are best viewed with the naked eye by lying on the ground, looking toward the area east of the zenith - directly above you - with the highest number usually occurring from midnight to dawn," he said.
Because a full moon will occur on Nov. 17, Slavin said the faintest meteors will be difficult to see, but the moon will present an opportunity to see another feature of the night sky.
"Use binoculars or a small telescope to look for craters on the moon and discover what Galileo saw in 1609," he said.
Under the stars
Here are some upcoming events that will give residents in the Northwest Indiana region a chance to learn more about the night sky.
Flight Adventures and South Shores Skies
When: Beginning at 2 p.m., Nov. 9
Where: Challenger Learning Center, 2300 173rd St., Hammond
Details: Families can come together for several activities throughout the afternoon to learn more about flying basics. As part of the program, the Robert H. Rivers Planetarium will feature a short "South Shore Skies" presentation that provides guests with easy-to-use stargazing tips.
Observatory public viewing
When: 5 to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9
Where: Thomas Conway Observatory, 191st and Chase, Lowell
Details: Located just south of Buckley Homestead, the Thomas Conway Observatory will feature a free public viewing of the Comet ISON. Visitors should call prior for any updates, as weather can cause changes in programming.
FYI: (773) 639-5491
November Night Hike
When: 5 to 6 p.m. Nov. 14
Where: Taltree Arboretum & Gardens, 450 West 100 North, Valparaiso
Cost: $6 for adult members, $7 for adult non-members; discounts for seniors and children
Details: Come see nature at night during a 45-minute hike. Guests should arrive about 10 minutes prior to the hike.
Adler After Dark
When: Third Thursday of every month
Where: Adler Planetarium, Chicago
Cost: $20 for nonmembers, $15 for members; $5 discount if purchased in advance
Details: This event is for adults 21 and older, and allows night time observing in the Doane Observatory, unlimited shows and entertainment.
Season of Wonder
When: Nov. 15 through Jan. 5
Where: Adler Planetarium, Chicago
Cost: Included with paid admission to the museum
Details: This event features a sky show that explores the spectacular sights of the winter night sky, seasonal programming and other holiday events. The sky show, called "Winter Sky Live," explores the sky by streaking past seasonal constellations, visible solar system objects and nature's light show, the Aurora Borealis. Another show, "Cosmic Wonder," transforms the theater into a virtual observatory.