November’s night sky: Notoriously unpredictable meteor shower returns

November’s sky features long nights, a fickle meteor shower, bright planets and the “beaver moon.” It’s a time to bid farewell to the last of summer’s stars and to welcome the bright, colorful stars of winter.

The first week of November finds the moon waning in the morning sky. The new moon occurs on Nov. 13, then waxes to the full moon on the Nov. 27. November’s full moon is popularly called the “beaver moon” in North America.

The name originates in Native American lore and was passed on to early European fur trappers. It is apt because this is the time of year when beavers become particularly active, repairing their dams and dens for their winter hibernation. Because they are mostly nocturnal, the light of November’s full moon helps them do their work.

Other names for the occasion are the frost moon and the mourning moon. The latter is particularly applicable for a full moon that occurs on the heels of the Halloween cross-quarter day.

Catch a falling star … or not

The night of the 17th-18th is the predicted peak time for one of the most notorious meteor showers. The Leonids are the detritus of the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, which circles the sun every 33 years. This shower normally has relatively low activity, but occasionally it produces incredible meteor “storms.”

Such was the case in 1833, when thousands of meteors seemed to rain down over the United States, prompting widespread fears of the end of the world. In 1966, observers in the Southwest saw shower rates in excess of 100,000 meteors per hour. Enhanced showers were seen in 1999, 2001 and 2002. I observed the 2001 shower from a park in Alexandria, Va., and gave up counting meteors after seeing some 400 in a half-hour.

While a “storm” isn’t expected this year, some models predict upward of 50 swift meteors per hour for observers in dark locations. The meteors appear to “radiate” from the constellation of Leo (the Lion), which will be high in the south as morning twilight begins. The waxing crescent moon will set long before Leo rises.

As November opens, the early evening sky still hosts the late summer constellations whose brightest stars form the asterism called the Summer Triangle. You will find the trio in the western sky as evening twilight ends. By mid-month, Vega, Altair and Deneb start to slip below the horizon between 10 and 11 p.m.

Overhead, the stars of Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pegasus and Perseus play out their ancient legend on a nightly stage. Look for the “Great Square” of Pegasus and the W-shaped pattern that forms Cassiopeia. Andromeda is depicted by two diverging chains of stars that point northeastward from Alpheratz, the brightest star in the square. The southern chain is the brighter of the two and points to Mirfak, the brightest star in Perseus.

Hidden among the stars of Andromeda is an object that led astronomer Edwin Hubble to one of astronomy’s most significant discoveries. From a dark sky site on a moonless night, trace out the brighter chain of stars that originate from Alpheratz. “Star hop” from the second star in the southern chain to a fainter star in the upper one. Nearby you should see a small, wispy patch of light.

First noted by the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi in the 10th century, the true nature of this “little cloud” defied the telescopes of astronomers until 1925, when Hubble resolved — identified as distinct entities — several of its brighter stars with the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson in California.

These stars were a type that vary in brightness over time, and their period of variation is related to their intrinsic brightness. Using these variables as a “standard candle,” he determined that the “little cloud” of al-Sufi was in reality an external galaxy, far beyond the bounds of our Milky Way. We now know that the great Andromeda Galaxy is some 2.5 million light-years away. It is the most distant object you can see with the naked eye.

Thanksgiving in the stars?

The rising stars of winter begin to push Andromeda and company westward during the late night hours in November. One of the most prominent is Capella, a dazzling, yellow-tinted luminary in the constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer. The sixth-brightest star in the sky, its name means “little goat,” and it is nearly overhead at midnight in late November.

In Greek mythology, it represented Amalthaea, the goat that suckled the infant Zeus. The rambunctious toddler accidentally broke off one of the goat’s horns, which was then transformed into the Cornucopia, or “Horn of Plenty.” Today we observe Thanksgiving Day close to the time when Capella passes overhead at midnight.

If you are out and about during the late evening hours, look southwest of Capella for the small knot of stars that form the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. This is perhaps one of the most storied star patterns in the sky, mentioned in the sky lore of just about every civilization that has left us records.

The appearance of the group in the evening sky was a portent of the gales and storms of boreal winters, and mariners were particularly aware when they crested the horizon. The group is a true star cluster, and while most of us can perceive six or seven members, the cluster consists of hundreds of fainter members.

Big and bright dazzlers: Saturn, Jupiter and Venus

Saturn maintains a lonely post among the faint stars of Aquarius this month. Early in November, the ringed planet lies due south at around 7:30 p.m. Eastern time. By month’s end, it will appear at its highest by 6 p.m. The moon will appear to snuggle up close to Saturn on the evenings of Nov. 19 and 20. If you have a telescope, or visit one of the many astronomy programs hosted by local amateur astronomers, you will be treated to an amazing sight as Saturn and its faint moons hover in the eyepiece.

Jupiter reaches opposition, the moment when it lies exactly 180 degrees from the sun, on Nov. 3. This is when the giant planet rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, lording over the night sky. Jupiter is at its biggest and brightest at this time, a mere 33 minutes away from us at the speed of light.

Old Jove is the best planet to observe with a small telescope. You should be able to see the dark equatorial cloud belts and the ever-changing positions of the four bright Galilean moons. The moon will be a few degrees west of Jupiter on the evening of Nov. 24.

Venus greets early risers in early November from a high perch in the east, then begins a gradual drop toward the eastern horizon. The moon will have a close conjunction with the dazzling planet on the morning of Nov. 9. It will remain a pre-dawn fixture in the sky through the rest of the year. The planet’s brightness is due to a thick layer of highly reflective clouds that hide its hellish surface landscape.

Celestial sightings in the D.C. area

Want to look through a telescope this month? Here are some suggestions:

Every Friday — Visit the Analemma Society’s observatory at Turner Farm Park in Great Falls, Va.

Nov. 4 —Earth & Sky Adventures” at Sweet Run State Park, Hillsboro, Va.

Nov. 11 —Astronomy for Everyone.” Come see the stars from Northern Virginia’s only International Dark Sky Park.

Nov. 18 — Public Observing Night, C.M. Crockett Park, Midland, Va.

Nov. 18 — “Exploring the Sky” is presented by the National Capital Astronomers at the Rock Creek Nature Center.

Nov. 19 — Stargaze at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Va.

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