The sun’s path through the sky is known as the ecliptic. An 8-degree band on either side of the ecliptic marks the zodiac, the region through which the moon and planets pass. Because the moon takes about one month to orbit Earth, it visits each of the zodiacal constellations every month. If you trace the path of the moon across the sky, you have the chance to learn the location of the zodiacal constellations and some of their brighter stars.
On Sept. 5, a first quarter moon is near Jupiter in the constellation Ophiuchus, sometimes called the “13th” constellation of the zodiac. Just below this pair is Antares, a red supergiant that is the brightest star in Scorpius. The moon hops over Saturn in Sagittarius on Sept. 7-8. The full moon will be just before midnight in Sauk Prairie as the moon floats among the stars of Aquarius on Sept. 13, washing out the fainter stars in its vicinity. Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus, gets a visit from a waning moon on Sept. 19. The moon will lead you to Leo the Lion and its brightest star Regulus on Sept. 26, but it will require you to rise before the sun in order to see them.
Seasonal constellationsConstellations are generally associated with certain seasons. For example, spring brings Leo, Virgo and Bootes to name a few; summer includes Sagittarius, Scorpius, and Cygnus; fall ushers in Andromeda, Pegasus and Capricornus, while winter is known for the distinctive constellations of Taurus, Orion, and Perseus, among others.
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But you can see these constellations “out of season,” you just have to be willing to stay up all night or rise before dawn. As fall begins, Andromeda and the Great Square of Pegasus are visible in the east, rising as night falls and continuing to ascend into the sky as the evening wears on. But if you stay up late stargazing, you’ll eventually see the winter constellations Taurus and Orion appearing over the horizon around midnight, with Leo and other spring constellations showing up before dawn breaks and washes out the stars.
Autumnal equinoxThe autumnal equinox for those of us in the northern hemisphere is at 2:50 p.m. CDT on Sept. 23. Day and night are nearly equal around this date, and the sun will rise directly east and set directly west on the equinox.
An old wives’ tale says that on the equinoxes, when the Earth is “balanced” and all things are equal, it is possible to balance an egg on one end. The truth is that you can balance an egg on its end any day of the year, provided you have a steady hand.
For reasons not fully understood, the time around the equinoxes brings more chances to view the Northern Lights. More aurorae are spotted in March, April, September, and October. Solar flares from the sun shoot particles toward Earth that can interact with our atmosphere and create the dancing curtains of light. You can keep track of the sun’s activity level at websites such as spaceweather.com or with NOAA’s 30-minute aurora forecast. Read reports of recent sightings and check on the location of the current auroral oval and the level of activity.
Kelly Kizer Whitt fell in love with astronomy while a student at Sauk Prairie High School, earned her degree at UW-Madison and shares her love with this column.