| Oct 30, 2008

Night Skies - November 2008.class { BORDER-RIGHT: black 1pt solid; BORDER-TOP: #000 1pt solid; BORDER-LEFT: black 1pt solid; BORDER-BOTTOM: black 1pt solid } .class1 { BORDER-RIGHT: #9f5128 1pt solid; BORDER-TOP: #9f5128 1pt solid; BORDER-LEFT: #9f5128 1pt solid; BORDER-BOTTOM: #9f5128 1pt solid } .class2 { FONT-SIZE: 8pt; COLOR: #666 }

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Night Skies - November 2008 Two brightest planets still dominate the evening sky by Leo Enright

With the coming of November in this part of the world, weather permitting, for stargazers, there are increased opportunities for exploring the autumn evening sky which opens its riches to us by the end of the dinner hour, but this year, with Daylight Saving Time ending at 2AM on Sunday, November 2, there is the added “artificial bonus of the clock” that comes with that extra hour of evening darkness. Sunset that night is a few minutes before 5PM EST, and astronomical twilight ends about 6:30PM. Morning twilight does not begin until 5AM, with sunrise about 6:45AM. With sunset occurring about one minute earlier each evening of November, and sunrise occurring about one minute later each morning, by the end of the month, the nights are one hour longer than they were at the beginning of the month – meaning that by November 30, sunset is about 4:30PM with the end of twilight at 6:15PM, and morning astronomical twilight begins at 5:30AM and sunrise at about 7:20AM.

During the dinner hour this month, as the great Milky Way comes into view, it can be seen sweeping overhead in a northeast to southwest direction. It should be a constant reminder to us that it is a great “river of light” from the millions of stars that make up our home galaxy with our Sun being just one of those 200 billion stars that form the Milky Way Galaxy. If we look well up in the eastern sky to the right of the Milky Way on any clear November night we can see two prominent constellations, one a huge square, that perhaps reminds us of a baseball diamond with home plate at the bottom, and one a horizontal row of three very bright stars going from the left corner (or third base) of the big square back toward the Milky Way. These two very prominent constellations, and also four others that are nearby, are associated with one of the great and enduring stories of ancient mythology; in fact, one of the oldest stories in our western culture. The horizontal row of bright stars is the main body of the constellation Andromeda, who was probably the original “damsel in distress”, and was saved by the classical hero Perseus. The large square just mentioned was seen in ancient times, certainly not as a baseball diamond, but rather as the great winged horse named Pegasus, in some versions of the story ridden by Perseus on his mission to rescue Andromeda, though in other versions of the tale, the steed was ridden by another hero named Bellerophon. Perseus himself, standing in the northeastern sky and partly within the Milky Way, is the group of stars to the left of Andromeda, and a string of stars extending from his body was often seen as his arm holding aloft the head of the “snake-haired Gorgon” in order to slay the monster attacking her, for the mere sight of the hideous Gorgon reputedly had the power to kill. Take special note of the star “at the end of his arm” since it is the famous Algol, a variable star that can be seen changing in brightness every third day. It is quite interesting to speculate on whether ancient peoples saw its changes in brightness as the “still blinking eye of the deceased Gorgon”. Standing high above Perseus and also partly within the Milky Way are his parents, Queen Cassiopeia, to modern eyes looking simply like the letter “W” written on the sky, not a queen on a throne, and Cepheus, the King, which to the less active modern imagination appears as a simple five-sided drawing of a house being blown over in the wind, certainly not a king on his imperial throne. Below Andromeda and down to the right toward the southeastern horizon stretches the slain sea-monster, Cetus, sprawling on the earth from its encounter with the Gorgon’s head. Cetus is a very large constellation stretching out below both Andromeda and Pegasus. Using the ancient myth as the story to tie them all together can be a good reminder to look for all six of these constellations on clear November evenings.

Of the five bright planets that can be seen with the unaided eye, three may be seen easily throughout the month and one during the first week of November. Mars is the one that may not be seen at all this month since it is in the part of its orbit that is on the far side of the sun. The two brightest planets continue their activity of last month and continue to be the planetary centre of attention. Venus, the brightest planet, is stunningly bright after sunset and prominent in the southwestern sky throughout the month, and to those who have a clear and unobstructed view of the southwestern sky, the steady march of this planet toward Jupiter, the second brightest of the planets, will be a delight and something to follow with careful attention every single evening, weather permitting. Begin at the dinner hour or before it, that is, shortly after sunset, and watch Venus and Jupiter pop into view – Venus in the southwest and Jupiter to her left in the south-southwest. As was pointed out in last month’s column, it is an evening event, with the queen and king of the planets performing their “dinner dance” – waltzing closer to each other by about one degree per day as seen from Earth. (One degree is the width of a fingernail held at arm’s length.) They began in early October 60 degrees apart, and on November 1 are 30 degrees apart, and culminate the dance with a very close conjunction on the evening of November 30. Not to be missed! Binoculars will show that on November 5 Venus appears very close to a bright star; it is not a moon of Venus, since there are none, and on November 17 Jupiter appears very close to another bright star – not to be confused with the four moons of Jupiter that may be seen in good binoculars. The planet Saturn may be seen among the stars of the constellation Leo the Lion, rising in the east shortly after midnight each night of the month. During the first week of the month the planet Mercury may be seen in the eastern morning sky for about a half-hour beginning over an hour before sunrise – by early risers who have a good view of the eastern horizon. Binoculars may be helpful in finding this planet, which will be to the left of the star Spica, brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

The moon will add flare to the views of the planets at various times. On the evenings of November 1, 2, and 3 watch the slim crescent moon as it moves through the western evening sky in the “space between” Venus and Jupiter. One lunar month later on the evenings of November 30 and December 1, see the event repeated but notice how much the position of the two planets, relative to each other, has changed. High in the eastern morning sky on the 20th and 21st, notice how the moon is positioned relative to Saturn.

Among the meteor showers likely to be quite active this month is the one called the ‘Southern Taurids’ which peak on November 5, though some of these meteors may be seen for a week before and after that date also. They are most likely to be seen in the early morning hours by those looking southwestward.

More information about observing the spring and summer sky is available in the book entitled “The Beginner’s Observing Guide” which is now available at Sharbot Lake Pharmacy.

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