On Sept. 6 NASA launched its final lunar mission, an unmanned spacecraft called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE. The probe will reach the moon on Oct. 6 and will spend six months studying the composition of the surface dust and thin atmosphere surrounding the moon before crashing to the surface. It will carry three instruments, a mass spectrometer to study the atmosphere, an ultraviolet-visible light spectrometer, and a device to directly measure the lunar dust particles. Besides data about the surface dust and atmosphere it is hoped LADEE will shed light on two subjects. One is the moon’s water cycle and how ice formed at the poles. The other is a mystery that is gone unsolved ever since the Apollo astronauts reported it decades ago. That is the reason for a “strange glow” that lit up the horizon of the Moon just before sunrise.

Focus on the planets

All five naked-eye planets will be visible to a greater or lesser extent during the month of October.

Mercury is low on the west-southwest horizon as the evening twilight deepens. It will require binoculars and good viewing conditions to spot the elusive innermost planet that will vanish into the sun’s glare by midmonth.

Venus is low in the southwest at sunset and remains in view throughout the month. Look for Venus directly beneath the crescent moon on Oct. 8. Antares is to the left and between the pair.

Mars pokes above the eastern horizon around 3 a.m. A close encounter with Regulus allows a color comparison of the blue-white giant to the reddish orange of the planet.

Jupiter rises in the northeast around midnight but is best viewed high in the south at dawn. A telescope will reveal the belts and zones of the planet’s surface while the four moons continue their “dance” around the planet. On Oct. 12, the shadows of three of the moons will appear on the face of Jupiter simultaneously.

Saturn rises in the west after dark to the upper right of Mercury but will prove as difficult to spot as it too vanishes by mid-October.

Uranus is high in the south among the stars of Pisces and will be best viewed around midnight. Its blue-green disk should be spotted with a pair of good binoculars.

Neptune is high in the south by around 10 p.m. by midmonth and its blue-gray disk can be spotted with binoculars.

Note: There is an article on spotting Uranus and Neptune in this month’s issue of Sky & Telescope.

October events

1: Sunrise, 6:33 a.m.; sunset, 6:17 p.m. Mars forms the apex of a triangle high in the east before dawn with Regulus and the moon forming the base.

5: New moon, 8:33 p.m.

8: Venus sparkles on the southwestern horizon with the moon above and Antares to the planet’s upper left. This would be the peak night for the Draconid meteor shower that has produced a strong shower in the past although little or no activity is predicted for this year. A clear moonless night would make it worthwhile to check out just in case.

10: The Southern Taurids peak tonight and good viewing should reveal up to five bright, slow meteors per hour. The moon is at perigee or closest approach to Earth today.

11: The moon is at first quarter, 7:03 p.m.

14: Mars and the bright star Regulus have a very close encounter high in the east about an hour before sunrise.

16: Look for Venus passing close over Antares in the southwest about an hour after sunset.

18: Full moon, 7:36 p.m. The full moon of October is known as the Hunter’s Moon and, less commonly, the Blood Moon.

21: This is the peak night for the Orionid meteor shower that, in the past few years, has exhibited rates of 40-70 meteors per hour, however, this year a strong gibbous moon will wash out any hope of seeing any but an occasional one of the bright fast meteors.

23: The sun enters the astrological sign of Scorpio but astronomically is still in Virgo.

25: The moon is at apogee of farthest distance from Earth. Look for Jupiter to the upper left of the moon in the early morning hours.

26: Moon in last quarter, 7:41 p.m.

30: The sun enters Libra on the ecliptic.

31: Sunrise, 7:12 a.m.; sunset, 5:26 p.m.

Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at cgmewood@aol.com or care of the Bangor Daily News, Style Desk, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402.