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    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

November 2011 Events: Feast in the East – and the West is no Slouch Either!

With the naked eye the planets look like stars and we can follow the path of the five brightest in our skies this month. With binoculars we can add Uranus and Neptune to our list and even see the four brightest moons of Jupiter. (NASA composite image. Click for larger version.)

It’s a feast in the east for November 2011 with Jupiter dominating that section of sky in the evening and Mars and Saturn taking over in the morning. Meanwhile, over in the west we have the Venus/Mercury show developing in the second week of the month.  And how about the middle of the sky? Well, there we have the always challenging-to-find planets, Uranus and Neptune.  Binoculars are a must to sight them. And if you’ve been counting, you know that’s all the planets! (Pluto – well, it’s a “dwarf planet” and it’s heading behind the Sun this month, and even if it were well placed it would be out of reach of the naked eye, binoculars, and even small telescopes.) Add to this a comet and the special fun the moons of Jupiter offer, and it really should be a very good month.

An appetizer: take a 2.5 million year star trek to the Great Andromeda Galaxy

But wait! That stuff is all in our back yard – we can get to any of those planets in a matter of minutes – light minutes, that is! (Light travels around the earth seven and a half times in a second , yet it takes it about 30 minutes to reach Jupiter!)  But early evenings in November – especially when there’s no moon to compete as will be the case in the last half of this November (2011) – offers another special treat for binocular users – the Great Andromeda Galaxy.

The Great Andromeda Galaxy as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. It won't look quite like this, but you too can see it with binoculars.

This is our neighbor in space –a galaxy much like our own Milky Way. And with dark skies free of the worst of light pollution you can actually glimpse it with your naked eye if you know just where to look. And it really is a glorious sight in even ordinary binoculars, especially when you understand that the small cloud you see is really 300 billion suns and their light is reaching you after journeying for two and a half million years! I don’t mean to detract from the planetary show, but if you have binoculars and clear skies, you really should take this “trek.” It will be especially good during the last two weeks of the month when the Moon doesn’t wash it out.

Review the eastern sky chart in our “Look East” post for this month, then use the chart and instructions below to zoom in on this galaxy – and when you do, give yourself a pat on the back as a genuine star trekker.

To find the Andromeda Galaxy use half of the "W" of Cassiopeia as a pointer. Or take a star hop down Andromeda's Couch, then up a couple of hops as shown. You should be able to fit stars 3 and 4 in the same binocular field of view, then stars four and the galaxy in the same field. Click for a larger version. (Created from Stellarium screen shot.)

(Here’s a printer-friendly, black and white version of the chart above.)

Back to the planets – they  line up like this

  • Jupiter can’t be missed. It’s the brightest “star” low in the east right after sunset.
  • Venus gets started on one of its spectacular appearances during which it will dominate the western evening sky for months.
  • Mercury plays coy and hard to catch, but Venus gives it away as it peeks above the western horizon right after sunset.
  • Mars is getting higher and higher in the morning sky and actually rises before midnight for part of the month. It continues to scoot right along, this month playing tag with the bright, guidepost star, Regulus.
  • Saturn is a morning sky object that will excite telescope users because its rings are at last returning to a favorable tilt from our perspective.
  • Uranus and Neptune are the difficult ones. They are both reachable with binoculars and in prime time, but they are challenging to find.

So that’s the line-up – read on for details. Or jump ahead to what interests you by clicking on one of the links above.

The Feast in the East 1 – Jupiter and the Algol bonus

Jupiter is in its prime – and dominating our prime-time observing – nice and high, nice and big, and with dancing moons that you can even see in binoculars if you can only find a way to hold them steady enough. Fortunately, there are several neat techniques pictured here that you could use to hold any binocular steadier. I used the “rifle sling” technique pictured on that site with my 15X70s and it helped significantly. But no matter what the size of your binoculars, you increase your chances of seeing Jupiter’s moons if you can get them rock steady.

Most binoculars have a threaded center post that allows you to use an inexpensive adapter to mount them on a typical camera tripod. This is good as long as the object you are looking at is not too high in the sky. Once it gets above 45 degrees it’s very difficult to position yourself behind binoculars that are on an ordinary tripod. (Go here to see one example of tripod adapters for binoculars.) So this is a good approach this month up until about three hours after sunset as Jupiter climbs higher each hour.

When you are looking at Jupiter’s moons, it’s fun simply because they are constantly changing position from night to night – even from hour to hour. It’s also fun because they are surprisingly diverse worlds. In fact, the exploration of large moons throughout the solar system has been a constant source of surprise. So I suggest two things.

First, learn more about Jupiter’s moons by going here. (Pay special attention to the four “Galilean Moons” – those are the ones you see.)

Second, use this Javascript utility at Sky and Telescope to figure out which moon is which when you actually observe them..

And while we’re on the subject of handy tools at Sky and Telescope, also use their utility to figure out when it would be a good time to catch the surprisingly elusive Demon Star – aka Algol – when at its minimum. This is something you don’t need binoculars to see – it’s best done with the naked eye. I explained it in more detail last month.

Feast in the West – Venus and Mercury

Venus and Mercury line up almost due southwest with the sun setting halfway between southwest and west. BE SUPER CAUTIOUS! To see these you will need binoculars, but looking at the Sun with binoculars will cause immediate damage to your eyes. So wait 10-15 minutes after sunset, then start your search. Venus should be bright enough even in twilight to see with the naked eye once you know where to look, so it helps to find it first with binoculars. (Prepared form Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

From roughly the 9th to 22nd of November 2011 Venus and Mercury will appear  in the same binocular field of view about 15 minutes after sunset. They are attractively aligned in an arc or line for just a few days starting on the 9th.  I’ve included Antares because it makes such a nice picture, but it’s more than a magnitude fainter than Mercury and much, much fainter than Venus (magnitude -3.8) and closer to the horizon, so I think it will be a difficult target. You need, of course, an unobstructed western horizon and very clear skies. Fifteen minutes after sunset Venus is less than a fist above the horizon. Half an hour after sunset it’s just half a fist high, and if you haven’t spotted it by then, you probably won’t as it will get lower fast and the closer to the horizon, the more difficult to see.

Please be careful and don’t begin your search with binoculars until 10 minutes after sunset so there’s no danger of catching the Sun in the binoculars and damaging your eyes. As the days go by Mercury stays about where you see it and Venus pulls away to the south, getting higher as Mercury begins to sink.

The Feast in the East 2 – Mars, Saturn, the Moon and stars

Now this is cool!  On November 22, 2011, you won’t have any trouble locating Saturn because it will be within a fist of the crescent Moon with Spica, about one magnitude brighter than Saturn, between it and the Moon. High above them,  Mars has passed Regulus, and is just about the same brightness as Saturn.  But you can find these planets just about any morning of the month, using the bright guidepost stars as your guide. Follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle and it takes you to Arcturus. Keep following this general curve and you get to Spica – passing through Saturn on the way.  Both Spica and Arcturus are  bright guidepost stars, as is Regulus. Mars will be within one fist (10 degrees) of Regulus all month. Mars starts out west (above) it on the first of the month, passes closest to it on the morning of November 11, and will be about one fist east (below) it by the end of the month.  Saturn will stay roughly half a fist (5 degrees) from Spica all month, changing position much more slowly than Mars since it is much farther away from us.

Click on image for a larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Challenge in the Middle – Uranus and Neptune

The early evening of the last half of the month is a good time to look for these planets since the Moon will not offer interference then – but you need to wait until about 90 minutes after sunset so it is completely dark.

This is where knowledge of the sky certainly helps – with a little knowledge it’s as easy as one, two – to find Uranus; and one, two, three to find Neptune. Here are the steps

One – Get your bearings.

Know the sky in the vicinity of these two planets. In particular you want to locate a relatively dim asterism known as the “Circlet” to guide you to Uranus, and two others, the “Water Jar” and “Arrowhead” to find Neptune. The starting point, however, is an asterism that should be familiar to you – the Great Square – and if it isn’t, please go to the “Look East” post for this month and locate it.  Then study the following chart – click on it to see the larger version.

Step one - get familiar with the big picture. The red circle between Uranus and Neptune is the field of view of typical, low-powered, binoculars - good tools for finding these objects. The Great Square and Jupiter should be easy to find because they're both bright. The "Circlet" is fourth and fifth magnitude stars that you need to be away from light pollution to find, but even in light pollution you can spot them with binoculars. However, the whole Circlet will probably not fit in your field of view. The Water Jar will fit in the typical binocular field and so may be an easier target. What I call the "Arrowhead" is the constellation Capricorn. The star at its northeastern corner is bright enough to see even in light-polluted skies and so is a good starting point for finding Neptune. Click image for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Step 2 – Zoom in on Uranus . . .

Assuming you have located the Circlet, now turn to this chart. The brightness of the planet in comparison to nearby stars is a good guide and will give you some idea of what to look for and whether or not it’s visible in your skies. The numbers on the chart refer to the magnitude of a star or planet. They are given without a decimal point so as not to confuse the chart with dots that aren’t stars. Thus the number “51” means a magnitude of 5.1 – and remember, the lower the number, the brighter the star!

Scan below the Circlet with your binoculars. The little rectangle of fourth and fifth magnitude stars should be easy to pick up and will help you find Uranus. Note that Uranus at magnitude 5.8 is half a magnitude or so dimmer than the stars in the rectangle, but a bit brighter than the 6.3 star next to it. The position of Uranus will change very little during the month. Click on image for larger version.

  . . . or alternative Step 2, zoom in on  Neptune

Neptune is more challenging, but if you can locate the third magnitude star Deneb Algiedi in the northeastern corner of the Arrowhead asterism, you will be well on your way. (It’s on the bright side of third magnitude, so should be fairly easy to find.)

Once again, the numbers next to stars are their magnitudes with the decimal point left out. So Neptune is magnitude 7.9, for example. It will be right near the edge of visibility in low power binoculars and you'll need the next chart to pick it out from the background stars. Click image for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

And now Neptune Step 3 – up close and personal

The bigger – and steadier – your binoculars, the easier it will be to see Neptune. It’s also important that your eyes be dark adapted. You’ll be looking for a faint “star” among several. Here’s a close-up chart.

Click image for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro Screen shot.

Did I mention the comet?

The comet is one that requires binoculars, but it’s still fun and is unusual in that it will be with us right up to the spring. I’m talking about Comet Garradd which we met at the end of August and start of September when it was hanging around with my favorite binocular asterism, the Coathanger.  Here’s a chart for its path in the last half of November.

At 6th magnitude Comet Garradd is just below naked eye visibility for most of us, but you should be able to pick it up in binoculars as a faint, fuzzy star. I doubt very much that you'll see a tail, but if you do it should point the direction shown in the chart. The chart is for 90 minutes after sunset - look west and find the Keystone of Hercules as a starting point. The second and third magnitude stars - Rasalhague and Rasalgethc, should also be a big help in getting you in the right general area. Arrow shows movement of comet from November 15 to November 30 - a period when the Moon should not interfere with your search. On the 15th Comet Garradd will be about three fists above the horizon 90 minutes after sunset - by the end of the month it will be about two fists. Click image for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

And if you’re wondering where the November meteors went, the Moon ate them!

Yes, last year at this time we were talking about three minor – but interesting – meteor showers. They were the South and North Taurids and the Leonids.  They’ll still be around this year, but they are weak shares at best, and this year will be especially challenged by the Moon. But for the record, the South Taurids peak November 5/6 late night until dawn; the North Taurids November 11/12th; and the Leonids November 17/18.

Look east in November 2011 for the “Eye of Sauron” star and Capella

November brings us our southernmost – and northernmost – guidepost stars, Fomalhaut and Capella. Their positions in the sky mean that for Northern Hemisphere observers Fomalhaut is the guidepost star we see for the shortest amount of time – and Capella is the one we see the longest.

In fact, for many, Capella is visible during some hour every night of the year – and for those north of latitude 45 degrees, it is circumpolar – that is, it never sets. But lonely – and freshly fascinating – Fomalhaut just puts in a relatively brief appearance low to the south.

From NASA:”This image, taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows the newly discovered planet, Fomalhaut b, orbiting its parent star, Fomalhaut. The small white box at lower right pinpoints the planet’s location. Fomalhaut b has carved a path along the inner edge of a vast, dusty debris ring encircling Fomalhaut that is 21.5 billion miles across. Fomalhaut b lies 1.8 billion miles inside the ring’s inner edge and orbits 10.7 billion miles from its star.” Click image for larger version.

Fomalhaut is “lonely” because there are few bright stars in its vicinity. It is “freshly fascinating” because early in this century the Hubble Space Telescope got a fantastic picture of a disc of “debris” surrounding it, showing this young star to be in the throes of forming planets. Then in 2008 scientists announced they had actually found a planet circling Fomalhaut (see photo above), the first planet outside our Solar System to be seen with visible light. Cool! Add to this the fact that the Hubble photograph of Fomalhaut could be easily mistaken for the Eye of Sauron, and for fans of the Lord of the Rings movie triology, Fomalhaut becomes especially memorable. (For more on the “Eye of Sauron” go here.)

Vital stats for Fomalhaut (FO-mal-ought)

• Brilliance: Magnitude 1.16; its luminosity is the equal of 16 Suns.
• Distance: 25 light years
• Spectral Types: A3V
• Position: 22:57:39, -29:37:20°

Brilliant Jupiter is by far the brightest "star" in the east on November evenings in 2011. To find Fomalhaut look southeast. Click chart for a larger image. (Chart modified from screen shot of Starry Nights Pro software.)

Click here to download a printer friendly version of the above chart.

Finding Fomalhaut

As always, it’s easiest if you start looking in the east 45 minutes after sunset when in the twilight only the brightest stars are visible as shown on our chart. Fomalhaut is the brightest star south of southeast and about a fist and a half above the horizon 45 minutes after sunset. I emphasize “star” because in 2010 Jupiter is in the general vicinity, but significantly brighter, and about three times as high. Trailing well behind Fomalhaut – to the east – and lower still is a second magnitude star (same brightness as the North Star) called Deneb Kaitos. It’s about the same distance from Fomalhaut as Fomalhaut is from Jupiter, and I mention it only so you won’t mistake it for Fomalhaut.

If you have learned the Great Square – see this post – then the two stars that form the western edge of that square can be used, as shown in our chart, as pointer stars. Drawing an arrow through those two stars leads you to Fomalhaut. You could also wait until a couple of hours after sunset when you would find Fomalhaut very close to due south. Even then, from my latitude of 41.5° N it is not quite two fists (19°) above the southern horizon.

Ahhh Capella!

Brilliant Jupiter again is by far the brightest "star" in the east on November evenings in 2011. To find Capella look northeast. Click chart for a larger image. (Chart modified from screen shot of Starry Nights Pro software.)

Click here to download a printer friendly version of the above chart.

Capella is distinctive because it’s not “a” star – it’s two! But these two, bright, yellow suns are so close together that you’ll always see them as one, even if you use a large telescope. Together they make a star that rivals Vega and Altair, now well into our western sky, in brightness. (See Summer Triangle chart here.) In fact Capella is the third brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere – but that’s a tad deceptive because it doesn’t count Sirius – the brightest star that most Northern Hemisphere observers can see, because technically Sirius is in the Southern Celestial Hemisphere, since it is below the celestial equator. But you don’t have to worry about such technicalities to enjoy a view of Capella. Just look near the horizon to the northeast. You will need a very clear horizon, however, especially at the start of the month because then Capella will not even be one fist above the horizon.

Just as Fomalhaut is a bit south of southeast, Capella is a bit north of northeast.

It’s easiest to find Capella if you start 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. Choose a spot with a clear horizon to the northeast and watch for a bright star to appear very near the horizon. Like all bright stars near the horizon, Capella will twinkle and flash in different colors because you are seeing it through a lot of atmosphere. It won’t show its soft, golden hue until it is much higher in the sky. Even a veteran skywatcher can be fooled by this. Recently my wife was looking to the northeast on a fall evening and saw what she thought was Capella. But it was so bright and blinking red and green so distinctly, that she changed her mind and decided it was an airplane! (There’s an airport off in that general direction.) When after a minute or so it hadn’t moved, she knew her first thought was correct – but boy it made a convincing airplane!

For me, Capella marks a graceful arc of bright stars and asterisms that circle the north celestial pole. If you have been following these directions for a few months, look at Capella, the Bow of Perseus, and the “W” of Cassiopeia to see what I mean. Watching these move in the course of a single night – or from month to month – always gives me a real sense of how, from our vantage point, all the stars appear to circle Polaris.

As mentioned, Capella is really a complex multiple star. Its two main components are both yellow giants dubbed Aa and Ab, but there are two more stars in this family. However, they are a pair of red dwarfs only visible in a telescope and are so far away from the two bright stars that they take more than 1,000 years to complete an orbit. The two bright stars orbit in just 104 days. James B. Kaler, in his book The Hundred Greatest Stars, says this about the Capella twins:

These two magnificent giants are separated by about the distance between Venus and the Sun. A resident on a ‘Jupiter’ ten times further out would see two ‘Suns’ about half a degree across (similar to the Sun in our own sky), separated at maximum by some 6 degrees, one setting right behind the other.
So when you find Capella, pause – picture yourself on the Jupiter-like planet with these twin yellow Suns in your sky!

Vital stats for Capella (kah-PEL-ah)

• Brilliance: Magnitude .08; its luminosity is the equal of 16 Suns.
• Distance: 42 light years
• Spectral Types: G8/G0
• Position: 05:16:41, +45:59:53

Still with us!

Other bright guide stars and asterisms introduced in previous months that are still readily seen include the Summer Triangle of Altair, Deneb, and Vega, which is high over head and crossing into the western sky. Arcturus is just above the horizon in the west, the Big Dipper just west of north and hugging the horizon, and the Teapot is diving into the ground in the southwest. And, of course, we have the “Bow” of Perseus with “Algol” the “Demon” star, the “W” of Cassiopeia, the “home plate” of Cepheus, Andromeda’s Couch, and the Great Square.

Look North in November 2011 into the Dragon’s Lair

Click image for larger view. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click here for a printer-friendly version of the above chart.

Our north sky map this month is covering a slightly larger area than normal because I want to capture the relationship between Vega and Capella – two of our northernmost guidepost stars – that anchor the north sky in November. Think of them as two cornerstones and a line drawn between them will go quite close to the North Star, Polaris. What’s more, Vega will help us find the head of Draco the Dragon.

Draco is one of the north sky’s more charming constellations, for its long, slithery form does call to mind a dragon. It’s quite easy to pick out, really, but you do need dark skies. Start by locating Vega. The four stars that mark the head of Draco – one is quite faint – will be found roughly halfway between Vega and the two bright stars that mark the end of the cup of the Little Dipper. Having located the head, you really need a chart handy to find the rest of this long, twisting, dragon body – but it is pretty easy, and once you identify it, you won’t forget it.

Draco also harbors a special treat for binocular and small telescope users. That faint star (Nu) that marks one corner of the Dragon’s head? It’s really two, perfectly matched, 4.9 magnitude stars that are far enough apart so they can be split with binoculars – assuming you have good eyes and a really steady hand. In a small telescope they are absolutely delightful and earn their nickname of Dragon’s Eyes. ( There are actually three neat double stars in this region that are a delight for the telescope user. I’ve written about them in the double star observing blog I share with my friend John Nanson.)

Meanwhile, to the east we have a bright half circle of asterisms we’ve been talking about in the previous months. Start with Capella and move on up to the “Bow” of Perseus and from there higher still to the “W” of Cassiopeia. Directly above the Pole you’ll find the “Home Plate” of Cepheus pointing down towards Polaris.

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