USNO Public Affairs Office (202) 653-1541
Written by Gail S. Cleere, CNO OP-096P, (202) 653-0382
Mercury finally places himself in a position where northern
observers like us have a shot at him. Just before sunrise on
October 10th, look in the southeast to find him about 16 degrees
above the horizon (straight overhead is 90 degrees). It may not
seem like much, but 16 degrees is quite high for this little
fellow, who likes to cling close to the Sun. You'll find him
shining fairly brightly (-0.5 magnitude), and cavorting amongst the
stars in Virgo.
Venus graces us with a very bright presence (-4.3 magnitude) very
low in the southwest just as the Sun goes down. On October 3rd,
she flirts with a handsome crescent Moon. On the 16th-17th, she
makes a naughty pass at the red star Antares, passing just 1.8
degrees north of him.
Mars has slipped behind the Sun, and cannot be seen this month.
Jupiter rides high and bright (-2.4) with the twins in Gemini.
This fat gaseous planet rises before midnight, and can be seen all
night long not far from Castor and Pollux. On the 20th, he salutes
the passing quarter Moon, gliding just 4 degrees above him.
Saturn dusts off her bangles and gets slightly brighter as she
slips over to the western sky. She starts her long goodbye to the
summertime sky -- she'll be gone by Christmas. You'll find this
ringed planet still in Sagittarius, low in the southern sky at
sunset, setting about 4 hours later.
Uranus and Neptune practically stumble over Saturn, watching as she
slips to the west, and do likewise. Neptune preens, knowing he put
on quite a show for us this year, and polishes up his 6 newly found
moons (he has 2 others) and his 3 new rings. Uranus sulks -- he
was rather dull by comparison. Look for these two distant worlds
with binoculars, Uranus on the right side of Saturn, Neptune on the
Pluto pauses to take off his sunglasses, having made his closest
approach to the Sun just last month. He's long gone by now, over
in Virgo to the west of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, setting by the
time the Sun goes down.
First Quarter: October 7 Full Moon: October 14
Third Quarter: October 21 New Moon: October 29
The Full Moon closest the Harvest Moon in September is called the
Hunter's Moon. The Sioux called it the Dying Grass Moon; the
Cheyenne called it the Moon of the Freezing Water.
BETWIXT AND BETWEEN
The eve of the pagan fall festival of Samhain, later called All
Hallow's Eve, Hallowmass, Allhallow Even, Samian Eve, and now
Halloween, is celebrated on the day that is midway between the
Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, the year's quarter days.
We call it a Cross Quarter Day, and it is the only Cross Quarter
Day celebrated in the USA (albeit unwittingly). The Sun is now
rising half-way down on the southeastern horizon towards the point
at which it will rise in the dead of Winter, and the ancients knew
this. It is a day of peculiar significance. This was the ancient
Feast of the Dead, when all sorts of things went bump (and
sometimes more) in the night.
The traditions and customs of Halloween reach back in time. We
mark some of them in a variety of ways, including carving
'jack-o-lanterns.' It was traditionally celebrated as the eve of
Winter by the ancient Celts -- and the beginning of their New Year.
In ancient Ireland a new and sacred fire was kindled on this night,
from which all the fires of Ireland would be lit. The Celts
believed this date a crack in time, when the dead could revisit the
As in the case with most of these old pagan holidays, however, the
Church came along during the Middle Ages and Christianized it all
by naming 1 November the Feast of All Saints (All Hallows), and 2
November as the Feast of All Souls. During the Middle Ages,
mumming became popular (an act or mime where the players wear
disguises) and the poor went begging for sweet soul-cakes which
would be given as payment for prayers they promised to say for the
dead. Children went from door to door, chanting:
Soul, Soul, for a souling cake,
I pray, good missus, a souling cake.
Apple or pear, plum or cherry,
Anything good to make us merry.
The alternative, I suppose, was to make them mad. It isn't too
hard to see where the current "Trick or Treat" originated, or to
note that the prayers have been forgotten altogether.
And if it wasn't already, All Hallows Eve, Hallowe'en, became
regarded as unlucky and uncanny, becaue of its association with
paganism. In England and the USA, impersonation of the
supernatural, the dead, or the just plain spooky has long been a
tradition. We've retained the fire tradition, lit to ward off evil
spirits, in country bonfires or front porch jack-o-lanterns.
The jack-o-lantern may have had various origins, and one of them
may have been in Punky Night. A punky, from 'pumpkin' or 'punk'
(tinder) is a lantern made by hollowing out a pumpkin or turnip,
and placing a candle inside. The villagers of Hinton St. George in
England insist that "long ago" their menfolk went to the annual
Chiselborough Fair and got too drunk on cider to find their way
home. The village women-folk made punkies, set off in the night to
find them, and eventually dragged them home.
Another origin may have been Ireland's tale, which tells of a
stingy man named Jack, who for his penuriousness was barred from
Heaven, and for his practical jokes on the devil, he was barred
from Hell. Punishment? He was condemned to walk the earth with
his lantern until Judgement Day. Hence the 'jack-o-lantern'.
The practice of carving a mischievous face into the hollowed shell
of a turnip or pumpkin seems to be unique to Northern England,
Scotland, and America. The term 'jack-o-lantern' was used early on
in these countries to describe the night watchman. 'Jack' was also
a common name for a trickster or a mischievous fellow. In the 17th
century, 'jack-o-lantern' described the night lights that appeared
over swampy ground, attributable to the combustion of marsh gas.
In fact, 'will-o-the-wisp' and 'jack-o-lantern' seem to have been
used interchangeably to describe the same phenomenon.
Well anyway, Happy Halloween.
Just a reminder that October 29, 1989 marks the end of Daylight
Saving Time this year. At 2 a.m. local time, turn your clocks back
one hour for the start of Standard Time.
This idea, that of using daylight hours for something more useful
than sleep is not new. Ben Franklin, while ambasador to France, is
said to have awakened one morning in spring and found all of Paris
still sleeping. He came home with the idea of adjusting the time
to fit the seasons, but his idea was met with little enthusiasm.
It lay dormant for a hundred odd years.
Along came World War I. The Standard Time Act was passed by
Congress in March 1918, in an effort to unify the local customs of
keeping time. In an effort to conserve fuel and keep the home
front productive, Daylight Saving Time also became a reality.
Then, it was called War Time, or to the irreverent: Wildcat or
Scrambled Time. (And some of us still call it that.)
"LEAP SECOND" COMING
An extra second will be added to the official U. S. time scale at
the end of December this year. The 'leap second' will be inserted
on New Year's Eve, between 23:59 Universal Time, (or 7:59 p.m.
EDT), and the beginning of January, giving the last minute of the
last day in December 61 seconds rather than 60. This is done
world-wide (by international scientific agreement) in an effort to
keep atomic time, whose standard is the resonant frequency of the
cesium atom, closely matched to solar time, or the rotation of the
The official United States time scale is determined by the Master
Clock at the U. S. Naval Observatory. This time scale is obtained
by averaging 25 cesium beam 'atomic' clocks. For as long as man
has kept time, however, he has set his clock by marking the passage
of the Sun and the stars across the skies; in other words, he was
measuring the rotation of the Earth. Unfortunately, the Earth
rotates irregularly, sometimes speeding up, but usually slowing
down. The leap seconds are inserted to keep to a minimum the
difference between the time as kept by the Earth's rotation, and
the time as kept by the independent atomic clocks in our
The atomic clock system is accurate to nearly a billionth of a
second per day, while the Earth's rotation is only uniform to
within one thousandth of a second per day. Because of variations
in the rotation of the Earth, the two time standards will drift
apart, and usually after 12 to 18 months the difference has reached
eight tenths of a second. To coordinate the two, the 'leap second'
U. S. Naval Observatory astronomers continually monitor the Earth's
rotational motion using both radio and optical telescopes. The last
full second increment, or 'leap second', was inserted in December
Although the Earth's rotation rate sometimes speeds up, the long
term trend is to slow down. The present day's length is about two
hours longer than a day's length 150 million years ago, in the age
of the dinosaurs. Some 300 million years ago, the day lasted only
about 20 hours. Think about that for a second.
This news release may be reproduced, with credit please, to the
U.S. Naval Observatory.