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From One Quarter to Another

Halloween falls right in between

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter Thursday, and as darkness falls on Halloween, it shines high in the south, with the bright star Fomalhaut almost straight below.
    As a holiday, Halloween stretches back thousands of years, but not as a day of costumes and trick-or-treating. It coincides with earth’s path around the sun, falling midway between autumnal equinox and winter solstice.
    The Celts of pre-Christan Britain called this cross-quarter day Samhain, celebrating both the end of the harvest and the end of the year. On this night, the veil between the world of the living and the realm of the dead was thought to be especially thin, so people lit bonfires and lanterns from hollowed-out gourds to ward off spirits.
    As Christianity spread, it merged its own holy days with the pagans’ cross-quarter holidays. Imbolc became Candlemas, now better known as Groundhog Day; Beltane gave way to May Day; Lugnasad became Lammas. And Samhain was absorbed into All Saints Day or Hallowmas, marked on November 1, with the night before Hallow’s Eve.
    Now the cross-quarter day coincides with another ritual, setting our clocks back an hour in the return to Standard Time at 2am the first Sunday of November.
    The first week of November provides the best view of Mercury before dawn. The innermost planet reaches greatest elongation November 1, its farthest west of the sun and its highest in our sky. An hour before sunrise, look for it not quite 10 degrees above the east-southeast horizon — roughly the size of your fist at arm’s length. At magnitude –0.6, Mercury is brighter than any nearby star (all but Sirius, in fact), but binoculars may help locate it in the glow of twilight. Don’t confuse the bright planet for Arcturus higher in the east-northeast.
    You shouldn’t have any trouble finding Jupiter. The gaseous giant rises around midnight, and as dawn approaches it is high in the southeast, bluish Regulus and the other stars of Leo the lion stretched out below it.
    Mars is the only planet visible in the evening, shining no brighter than your average star but still a distinct orange-red. Look for it low in the southwest as darkness settles, where it will remain the rest of the year.
    Early November marks the peak of the South Taurid meteor shower. The higher the constellation Taurus, the more meteors you’re likely to see, although the waxing moon will limit you. Still, the Taurids can deliver the occasional fireball.