Watching the Skies: New moon, stargazing opportunities

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new moon will occur this week, which means, of course, that we won’t be able to see the moon. Even though the moon won’t be visible, the lack of moonlight will lead to ideal stargazing conditions.

The new moon will occur at 7 a.m. on Thursday. On Friday, try your luck to spot the very thin crescent of the young moon. It will likely be difficult to spot on Friday but will become easier to see as it gets larger the following evenings. Look west around where the sun has set to try and see the moon.

While there’s a lack of moonlight, be sure to look up to see the stars and planets. The Milky Way will be visible, stretching from the southwest horizon to the northeast horizon.

Mercury will be visible this week, but you’ll likely need binoculars. Look just to the left of west after sunset.

Venus will be easy to spot. It is the third brightest celestial object in the night sky behind the sun and the moon, so as long as skies are clear, you’ll have a good view. Look high in the east at dawn.

Mars rises in the east as twilight comes to an end. It will be high in the south a few hours before daybreak.

Jupiter and Saturn are still close to each other. Jupiter is the brighter of the two, and Saturn is to the left of Jupiter. The two planets will be paired up in the south in the early evening.

The autumnal equinox will occur next week, marking the beginning of astronomical fall. In the days leading up to the equinox, watch the sunrise and sunset closely. You may notice the actual time for the sun to rise above or sink below the horizon is faster than usual.

The fastest sunrises and sunsets of the year occur around the time of the equinoxes. This is because at the time of the equinox, the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west, compared to a solstice when the sunrise and sunset has more of a southerly or northerly component.

When the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west, it hits the horizon at the steepest possible angle. This means it rises and sinks faster than it would if the angle was less steep like it is around the time of a solstice.

There have been some smoky sunsets around West Michigan lately. This picture sent in by Penny Folsom in Cedar Springs shows how a smoke-filled sky can impact our view of the sun.

A smoke-filled sky impacts our view of the sun in West Michigan. (Courtesy: Penny Folsom)