Colder but Cooler Stargazing
We have one more week of daylight savings time to go for 2016, and as a stargazer and someone who wakes up at 3:30am to be on WCCO Radio I couldn't be happier! As of next Sunday it will be dark enough for stargazing by 7pm. Stellar driven sleep deprivation will be greatly reduced. The tradeoff, of course, is that you have to put on the heavier coat and a hat to handle that cooler November air. Itís worth it, though, as your eyes will take in some great celestial sights and the skies are a lot more transparent with much less moisture in the air!
Even though itís still autumn, some of the early bright constellations of winter are already on the rise on the great celestial stage. First off, you canít help but see a beautiful little star cluster shining brightly in the low eastern sky, resembling a tiny dipper. Itís not the Little Dipper. Thatís in the high northern sky. What youíre witnessing is the Pleiades star cluster, the best naked eye star cluster in the night sky. Astronomically the Pleiades are a group of young stars almost 2400 trillion miles away that were born together about 100 million years ago.
The Pleiades also has a connection with the spookiness of Halloween. Back in the day, or should I say night, this little cluster was greatly feared by many ancient societies as remote from each other as Egypt, Ceylon, Mexico, and Britain. It was believed that a catastrophe or even the end of the world was eventually going to occur when the Pleiades reached their highest point in the late night sky about this time of year. All-night ceremonies took place, complete with sacrifices, to ward off their demise. Sometimes this didnít work. Even back then fear mongering was popular with a lot of folks! As youíre trick or treating or partying Monday night keep an eye out for the Pleiades, but don't be afraid of them!
Another thing to keep an eye out for early this week are three planets in the very low south-southwest sky very early in the evening. The planets Venus and Saturn are in a very close celestial hug, less than three degrees apart, but you can only see them if you have a good view of the southwest horizon. Toward the end of evening twilight they'll be barely above the horizon. Venus will be the much brighter of the two with Saturn to the upper right of Venus. Forget about checking them out with your telescope. They'll both show up really fuzzy because of the blurring effects of our atmosphere that's extreme along the horizon. You won't see them on the November Star Map I have for you because the map is set for 8pm, and by then Venus and Saturn will have already slipped below the horizon. This coming Wednesday and Thursday the new crescent moon will be passing above the planets and it should be quite a show! To see a diagram of that go to my website lynchandthestars.com and check out the Conjunction Junction section.
Speaking of the moon on November 14th it'll be a full moon with an attitude! I'm not a big fan of the term "super moon", because its roots come from astrology rather than the science of astronomy. I have to tell you though that this month we really will have a super moon because the full moon on November 14th will be the closest full moon physically since 1948. Be prepared to be moon struck big-time!
Mars is the third planet visible in the early evening this month. It's a little higher in the southwest sky as darkness sets in, but like Saturn and Mars it won't be much of a telescope target because it will also be fuzzed up by Earth's atmosphere. The first quarter moon will have a close junction with the red planet next weekend.
In the south-southeastern sky is the one of the prime autumn constellations, Pegasus the Winged Horse, with Andromeda the Princess tagging along. Turn around and face north and youíll see old friends like the Big Dipper, barely above the horizon, with the Little Dipper hanging by its handle higher in the northern sky. Cassiopeia the Queen, the constellation that looks like a giant sideways W, is proudly showing off her stuff in the high northeast sky. The W outlines the throne of the Queen, and Cassiopeia is tied up in that throne. She really ticked off Hera, the queen of the gods, by proclaiming that she was even more beautiful than Heraís godly self. So Hera tossed Cassiopeia up into the sky, eternally bound to her throne for all to see.
In the western sky there are still some summer constellations to be visually had. Among the brighter ones are Cygnus the Swan, Lyra the Harp, and Aquila the Eagle. We wonít see them for too much longer because as our Earth orbits the sun, these stars of summer will gradually set earlier and earlier in the evening.
If you're far enough away from city lights in the dark countryside you can still see the Milky Way band, the thickest part of our home galaxy. The milky ribbon of light made up of the combined light of billions of stars will roughly stretch north to south across the western half of the sky. Make sure you look for it this week because next week the moon will be approaching its full stage and the heavens will be just too lit up.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, ďStars, a Month by Month Tour of the ConstellationsĒ published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something youíre seeing in the night sky drop me a line at email@example.com