South Llano River State Park is a great place to see the night sky.

Watching the night sky is rewarding this time of year because there are many visible meteors and Mars and the moon are putting on a show. The darker the sky, the more you can see, so visit parks far from city lights for the best view. Texas’ internationally recognized Dark Sky Parks are perfect for stargazing, but any of these parks will give you an awe-inspiring view of the night sky: Cooper Lake-northwest of Dallas; Lake Somerville-northwest of Houston; South Llano River-west of Austin, a Dark Sky Park; Lake Arrowhead-south of Wichita Falls; Big Spring-northeast of Midland; and Falcon-Rio Grande Valley.

Don't miss these celestial happenings: Blue Moon-October's second full moon on Oct. 31 (Halloween!); Mars-very bright now and visible through November; and the Leonids meteor shower-peak Nov. 16-17. 

Whether you do a quick trip or stay overnight at a park, read the required safety guidelines and make reservations before you head out. 

The stars at night are big and bright! (Deep in the heart of Texas)

You’ll find lots to do at South Llano River State Park during the day. But the fun doesn’t end when the sun goes down. There is a great view of the night sky, including the Milky Way! How dark is it? The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale measures how well you can see objects in the sky at night. Light pollution and sky glow can interfere with your ability to see these celestial objects. The scale ranges from Class 1, the darkest skies available on Earth, through Class 9, inner-city skies. South Llano’s Bortle Scale rating is 3.

It’s all about Mars in October

NASA is developing a path for an exciting journey to Mars – a rich destination for scientific discovery and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. This month of October brings an amazing night-sky view of the Red Planet. Mars is currently visible, reaching its highest point in the sky around midnight. Earth’s closest neighbor is also at its brightest and will remain that way well into November.

Right now, Mars is the third brightest object in Earth’s night. The moon and Venus are the two brightest objects, and usually Jupiter is third. But for this season, Mars is passing close enough to Earth to outshine Jupiter. This great visibility of Mars coincides with an event known as opposition, which happens every two years and two months.

Opposition occurs when the orbit of a planet, such as Mars, takes it near the Earth. Just like runners passing each other on a track, the faster, inner planets, such as Earth, can approach and overtake slower-moving outer planets like Mars. When the planets pass each other during this opposition, Mars’ proximity means it will appear larger and brighter in our sky. Because the sun, Earth and Mars are lined up during this passing, Mars will rise at sunset, having a high overhead at midnight. This is the closest the Red Planet will come to Earth for the next 15 years, or until September 2035.

At its furthest, Mars reaches about 250 million miles (400 million kilometers) from Earth. During the October opposition, it will be as close as 40 million miles (60 million kilometers) – nearly seven times closer. Although Mars will still look like a bright star to the unaided eye, it will grow dramatically in size when seen in a telescope. This year, Mars’ closest approach to Earth happened just a week before the opposition Oct. 13, giving the Red Planet its biggest apparent size of the 2020s.

When it comes to observing Mars around opposition, telescopes will show more of the planet’s details, such as dark and light regions on Mars’ surface, and the prominent south polar ice cap, which will be tilted toward the Earth. Due to the turbulence of our atmosphere, these details can be hard to see, especially in smaller telescopes. Many amateur astronomers use a color video camera attached to their telescope, running special software that selects the best frames to stack into a single image. This helps in negating the blurring caused by the air.

The most striking thing about Mars’ appearance – whether seen with the naked eye or through a telescope – is its red color. This color is caused by iron in the rocks on Mars’ surface – the same thing that causes the red color in sandstone formations in the southwestern U.S. So, when you spot Mars, keep your eye on it and enjoy its fiery, red brightness!

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