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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.

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