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What's up this week in the September night skies?

The September night sky in 2023 promises to be a captivating month for both casual observers and astronomers, as the night sky unveils a series of celestial spectacles, according to this month’s skywatching tips from NASA.

Venus in the September night sky

Venus, the second planet from the sun, has dazzled us during the evening for most of the year. However, in a recent shift, “Venus has now switched over to being a morning sky object,” as described by NASA.

Rising in the eastern sky just before the dawn breaks, it manifests itself as a “bright beacon.” For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this superheated, cloud-covered planet can be observed at an altitude ranging from 30 to 40 degrees above the horizon as the month progresses.

Saturn and Jupiter 

But Venus isn’t the only planet putting on a show. Saturn and Jupiter, two of the solar system’s gas giants, are persisting in their presence this month, and will be visible to the naked eye. 

After the sun dips below the horizon, Saturn can be found low in the southeast. Jupiter then makes its appearance a couple of hours later, says NASA.

The majestic Saturn will set a few hours prior to sunrise, leaving Jupiter, the king of planets, to dominate the celestial stage until the morning light. 

Mark September 4th on your calendar. On this day, “Jupiter will be together with the Moon, high in the southwest before dawn.”

Supermoon in September’s night sky

September will also reveal this year’s fourth and final supermoon on the 29th. 

Supermoons, as described in NASA’s video below, are essentially full moons that appear when our natural satellite is proximal to its nearest orbital point around Earth. 

This month’s full moon carries the distinctive title of the “Harvest Moon.” Historically significant, the Harvest Moon’s radiance right after sunset traditionally granted farmers in the Northern Hemisphere the extended illumination they needed to bring in their crops in advance of the first frost.

Zodiacal light

For those observers who are willing to venture out in the pre-dawn hours of the September night sky, there’s a captivating phenomenon awaiting you. 

The zodiacal light, “a triangular or cone-shaped pillar of faint light,” offers an elusive sight best observed during the equinoxes in March and September. 

This mesmerizing light is a consequence of sunlight reflecting off an “interplanetary dust cloud,” which extends to the outer reaches of the inner solar system. 

Northern Hemisphere viewers are advised to seek this faint gleam in the east during the hour or so before morning twilight begins. Those in the Southern Hemisphere should turn their gaze westward after evening twilight, says NASA. 

Origin of the light

The best conditions for observing the zodiacal light? “Relatively dark skies,” especially during the latter half of September when the Moon’s absence enhances visibility.

What’s fascinating about this zodiacal light is its origin. “Most of this dust orbits the Sun in the same plane as the planets do. So it’s like looking out, into the disk of the solar system,” explains NASA. 

The dust’s source remains a subject of intrigue, with potential candidates ranging from comets to the planet Mars and asteroids.

OSIRIS-REx returns to Earth

Also this month, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is set to bring celestial wonders right here on Earth. This spacecraft, after collecting samples from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2020, is on its homeward journey. 

As it nears Earth, the spacecraft will release its sample return capsule. The anticipated landing is slated for Utah on September 24th.

Image & Video Credit: NASA/ JPL – Caltech 

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