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Night Skies - November 3, 2005

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Night Skies

November 3, 2005

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Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright

The Night Skies of November:Mars remains unusually bright

by Leo Enright

In early November, sunset in this area occurs a few minutes before 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, with twilight lasting until about 6:30 p.m. EST. Morning twilight does not begin until 5 a.m., with sunrise about 6:45 a.m. By the end of November, our nights are about an hour longer than they were at the beginning of the month, because sunset occurs about one minute earlier each evening and sunrise about one minute later each morning. Thus, by November 30, the sunset time is about 4:30 p.m., with the end of twilight about 6:15 p.m.; morning astronomical twilight begins at 5:30 a.m., and sunrise at about 7:20 a.m.


During the after-dinner hours of November, the great Milky Way sweeps overhead from northeast to southwest. This ‘river of light’ is from the many millions of stars in our home galaxy, with our sun being only one star in this incredible collection of over 200 billion stars. Looking well up in the eastern sky to the right of the Milky Way, on any clear night, we can easily see two prominent constellations, one a huge square that may remind us of a baseball diamond and one a horizontal row of stars going from the left corner of the big square back toward the Milky Way. These constellations and four others nearby are associated with one of the great stories of ancient mythology, in fact, one of the oldest stories in our western culture. The almost horizontal row of bright stars is the main part of the constellation Andromeda, possibly the original “damsel in distress”, who was saved by the classical hero Perseus. The large square was seen, in antiquity, not as a baseball diamond, but as Pegasus, a great winged horse, and in some versions of the story, the steed of Perseus on his mission of rescue. Perseus himself, partly within the Milky Way, is the group of bright stars to the left of Andromeda, and a string of stars ‘extending from his body’ was often seen as his arm holding aloft the Gorgon’s head to slay the monster attacking her. It is most interesting to note that ‘the star at the end of his arm’, known as Algol, is a variable star that is easily seen to change brightness every third day, and to speculate on whether ancient people saw it as the still blinking eyes of the deceased Gorgon. Stretching above Perseus, and also partly within the Milky Way, are his parents, Queen Cassiopeia, which to modern eyes looks like a large letter “W” written on the sky, not a queen on a throne, and Cepheus, the king, which to the less active modern imagination, seems to be a simple five-sided drawing of house, being blown over in the wind, certainly not a king on his throne. Below Andromeda, down toward the southeastern horizon stretches the slain sea-monster, Cetus, as though the sight of the horrid Gorgon, Medusa, had just sent it sprawling to the ground. Cetus is a very large constellation, stretching out below both Andromeda and Pegasus. Using the ancient story to tie them all together can be a great reminder to look for all six of these constellations in the autumn sky.

Right in their midst is the constellation containing Mars, the main attraction among the planets this month. In the last few days of October and during November this year, Mars will be nearer to Earth and brighter in the night sky, than at any time in the next 12 years! It appears, as usual, slightly reddish in colour – a direct result of the reddish sands on its surface. In fact, serious amateur astronomers who have very large backyard telescopes have been able to detect the blurring effects in some areas of its surface, from the dust storms that began on Mars just days ago (in mid-October), but such sights will not be detected in small telescopes. Mars is just below the three brightest stars of the constellation Aries, the Ram, which is located midway between Andromeda and the head of Cetus, the Sea-monster (both of which were described above). In fact, however, the brightness of Mars alone will make it unmistakable. It rises about sunset, dominates the eastern half of the sky before midnight and the western half after midnight, and it sets at about the time of sunrise.

Venus is the one planet brighter than Mars for all of November. Venus is seen low in the southwestern sky for over an hour after sunset. Owners of small telescopes will notice that it presents a “First Quarter Phase” this month, just like the “7-day-old moon”, when only half of the lighted half is seen from Earth. Saturn rises in the east late in the evening, and by midnight may be easily seen among the stars of the constellation Cancer. Binoculars will help to see a nearby star cluster called The Beehive Cluster, though under moonless rural skies, that cluster can be seen naked-eye just to the right of Saturn. This is one of the EXTREMELY RARE MONTHS when Mars appears even brighter than the planet Jupiter, and a comparison can be made by checking them both in the early morning, since Jupiter in November can be seen rising in the east in morning twilight before sunrise, and before Mars sets in the west. Look for these two planets (one in the east, one in the west) about an hour before sunrise. Mercury is elusive, but possible to see. In the first week of the month, Mercury may be spotted very low in the southwestern sky for a short while beginning about 40 minutes after sunset, and in the last week, very low in the southeast about 40 minutes before sunrise.

Some lunar-related viewing that will be well worth the effort! Don’t miss the view of the slim crescent moon beside Venus low in the southwest shortly after sunset on November 5. In the early part of the night on November 13, 14 and 15, watch the ‘almost Full Moon’ go past Mars. The gibbous moon can be seen bypassing Saturn before and after midnight on the nights of November 20, 21, and 22. A very thin waning crescent moon may be seen near Jupiter low in the southeastern sky about 30 to 60 minutes before sunrise on November 28 and 29.

For those interested in more information about observing planets, stars, and other objects in the autumn and winter skies, a book called The Beginner’s Observing Guide is now available at Sharbot Lake Pharmacy.

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