Halloween astronomy: how to plan a spooky stargazing session

Witches, dragons, demons and fireballs abound in the autumnal night sky, provided you know where to look.

An image of the Sun that looks strikingly like a Halloween jack o lantern. This image was captured by NASA's SDO probe. Credit: NASA/SDO

Have you got any astronomy or stargazing sessions planned for Halloween? If the conditions are clear, get outside and observe some of the scary night-sky objects perfectly placed at this time of year. You will be in for a creepy surprise or two, which younger astronomers will love.

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From early evening through ‘til the morning there will be more treats than tricks, so wrap up warm with a flask of hot pumpkin soup, grab a telescope or binoculars, a star chart or smartphone astronomy app and set yourself up for a spooky night of observing.

Ghostly nebulae and chilling constellations are yours to observe under a moonless sky.

Autumn sees the return of Orion to the night sky. Credit: Bernhard Hubl / CCDGuide.com
Autumn sees the return of Orion to the night sky. Credit: Bernhard Hubl / CCDGuide.com

Orion the Hunter, a giant huntsman hanging in the autumn sky, is poised with a bow taking aim at the nearby Pleiades (M45) open star cluster.

Rising in the eastern sky from late evening, Orion reaches its highest point just after midnight.

The constellation is easy to find using your naked eye and if you have a pair of binoculars to hand then look south beneath his belt, the prominent line of three stars, and you will be able to make out the faint, colourless and ghostly Orion Nebula (M42), a popular pitstop for astronomers of all abilities.

The Pleiades can be found by tracing the three stars of Orion's belt and following the line they create to find what appears as a 'smudge' in the night sky. Credit: Tommy Nawratil / CCDGuide.com
The Pleiades can be found by tracing the three stars of Orion’s belt until you reach what appears as a ‘smudge’ to the naked eye. Credit: Tommy Nawratil / CCDGuide.com

The fantastically named Witch Head Nebula (IC2118) located near Orion, situated within the constellation Eridanus (the river), is so called due to its image mirroring that of a witch’s face.

It is a billowing wisp of dust and gas known as a reflection nebula, lit up by Rigel (another naked-eye favourite), a hot blue star bigger than our Sun.

A tricky treat to view, the nebula is best observed in dark sky areas through telescopes with apertures of 10 inches and above.

Rigel can be seen as Orion’s right foot (from our perspective) and is the brightest star in the constellation.

The Witch Head Nebula. Can you spot this spooky visage in the Halloween night sky? Credit: Zdeněk Bardon/ESO
The Witch Head Nebula. Can you spot this spooky visage in the Halloween night sky? Credit:
Zdeněk Bardon/ESO

Taurus, Orion’s next-door neighbour, holds many astronomical jewels. Aldebaran, a giant orange star forming the eye of Taurus is a great naked-eye object to observe.

Cooler than the Sun but approximately 144 times bigger, it hangs in the darkness like an orange beacon in the Halloween sky. Stay within Taurus and locate the Crab Nebula (M1).

Giant ghostly crabs may sound like the stuff of nightmares, but through larger telescopes M1 appears as a wispy, ethereal jumble of gases. If you can photograph target this and process it at home, you will not be disappointed.

Locate the Taurus constellation (use the Pleiades to help you) to find Aldebaran and the Crab Nebula. Credit: Bernard Hubl / CCDGuide.com
Locate the Taurus constellation (use the Pleiades to help you) to find Aldebaran and the Crab Nebula. Credit: Bernard Hubl / CCDGuide.com

The Taurid meteor shower, brilliantly known as the Halloween Fireballs, will be visible in the sky from the end of October to the beginning of December.

Best viewed before dawn, it is not the most productive shower compared to others we see throughout the year but due to the meteors bigger size and burning up deeper in Earth’s atmosphere, the viewing should be spectacular producing bright meteors and a few fireballs.

For more info about meteor showers and how to observe them, read our beginner’s guide here.

If you really want a hair-raising surprise, cast your eyes towards Perseus and locate Algol, also called the Demon Star, an eclipsing binary, three-star system whose brightness can change within just one evening.

Can you spot Perseus and the 'demon star' in the night sky? Credit: Bernard Hubl / CCDGuide.com
Can you spot Perseus and the ‘demon star’? Credit: Bernard Hubl / CCDGuide.com

But the real gem in the Halloween sky is the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the faintest object you can see with your naked eye.

Located next to Perseus in the constellation of Andromeda, this galaxy contains 4 billion stars and lies 2.5 million lightyears from Earth. Through binoculars and small telescopes, it is a treasure not to be missed.

The Andromeda Galaxy is a beautiful object to spot in the night sky. Credit: Bernhard Gotthardt / CCDGuide.com
The Andromeda Galaxy is a beautiful object to spot observe. This image was captured using a DSLR camera and telephoto lens. Credit: Bernhard Gotthardt / CCDGuide.com

Rising in the northern sky is the constellation Draco, a giant dragon sweeping across the darkness winding its way from Ursa Major to Lyra.

Draco is a creature in a Greek myth that tells a tale of the dragon meeting a grisly end at the hands of Minerva who, upon his death, tossed him into the night sky where he froze in place and forms the constellation we see today.

Find Draco the dragon in the night sky and use it as a guide to spot the Cats Eye Nebula. Credit: Bernard Hubl / CCDGuide.com
Find Draco the dragon and use it as a guide to locate the Cat’s Eye Nebula. Credit: Bernard Hubl / CCDGuide.com

Staying within Draco, the Cat’s Eye nebula (NGC6543) can be seen through small telescopes. A bright planetary nebula, it is a favourite with astronomers. Through higher powered scopes, it appears as a blue-green disc and is certainly worth the challenging hunt.

The Cat's Eye Nebula. A night-sky companion for the Witch Head? Credit: Michael Breite, Stefan Heutz, Wolfgang Ries / CCDGuide.com
The Cat’s Eye Nebula. A night-sky companion for the Witch Head? Credit: Michael Breite, Stefan Heutz, Wolfgang Ries / CCDGuide.com

Star hopping from Draco to Ursa Major may require a little help from a star chart. Locate the star Edasich in Draco’s tail and bring your eyes south until they fall upon the famous asterism The Plough, which looks like a giant saucepan and forms part of the Ursa Major constellation.

Here, observers will get a startling surprise. Within the Great Bear itself sits an 8,000-year-old owl.

The Owl nebula (M97) lies 2,030 light years from Earth and can be seen through telescopes of 8-inches and above in dark sky areas.

If you only have a pair of binoculars to hand, then keep an eye out for Bode’s Galaxy (M81) in Ursa Major, a large spiral galaxy 12 million light years away with a super massive black hole for a heart.

Use Ursa Major to help you find the spooky Owl Nebula and Bode's Galaxy. Credit: Bernhard Hubl / CCDGuide.com
Use the Plough asterism, part of Ursa Major, to help you find the spooky Owl Nebula and Bode’s Galaxy. Credit: Bernhard Hubl / CCDGuide.com

If you would rather spend the night hunting planets, then you will need to be out early.

Looking low in the south-west, Venus will be sinking below the horizon around sunset whilst Jupiter will be setting around 8.30pm.

If you really want a Halloween to remember, the ghoulishly green Uranus is at opposition on 28 October 2019 meaning it will be just bright enough to see with your naked eye in darker areas, but will be best viewed through a telescope if you want to see its green colour.

Keep your eyes peeled for the giant icy planet located South of Aries.  You may need to do your homework beforehand to know exactly where to look.

For more info, read our guide to planet-hunting in October 2019.

The Owl Nebula, as imaged through the Astro-Physics 160mm f7.5 Starfire EDF refractor. Credit: Konstantin von Poschinger / CCDGuide.com
The Owl Nebula (bottom right), as imaged through the Astro-Physics 160mm f7.5 Starfire EDF refractor. Credit: Konstantin von Poschinger / CCDGuide.com

If you are planning on spending a chilling night under the stars this Halloween, observing under a blanket of darkness, wrap up warm and don’t forget to keep looking up…and behind you!

If you need help finding the constellations, stars, nebulae and planets in this article, there are plenty of smartphone apps to help you. Be sure to give your smartphone screen a red filter so as not to ruin your dark-adapted vision.

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Katrin Raynor-Evans is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the librarian at Cardiff Astronomical Society.