The Sky This Month – November 2009

The evening sky is fairly sparse this time of year, with few prominent foreground stars and fewer bright star clusters and nebulae.  After sunset, a few summer constellations like Lyra and Cygnus linger in the west.  The bright star Capella twinkles madly in the northeast, and slowly wheels higher after midnight.  The lovely constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia lead Capella high overhead.    And well past midnight, you’ll see the bright winter constellations rising in the east, including the unmistakable shape of Orion, with Taurus and the Pleiades leading the way.

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In the northern hemisphere around 9 p.m., the star Fomalhaut sits alone above the southern horizon.  Amazingly, it’s the brightest star in the vast expanse of sky between Deneb and Aldebaran.  This year, Fomalhaut has brilliant company: the bright planet  Jupiter in nearby Capricorn.  Last November, astronomers imaged what appears to be a planet embedded in a disk of debris around Fomalhaut.  This was one of the first exo-planets imaged directly with a telescope.

Jupiter-Fomalhaut

Fomalhaut, Jupiter, and the constellation Aquila in the south and south-west sky as seen from latitude 45°N (click to enlarge)

In the southern hemisphere, Fomalhaut is high overhead, almost at the zenith, with the bright Achernar just to the southeast.  Tucana and its splendid globular cluster 47 Tucanae is close by.  The remnants of the spring and summer Milky Way, including the constellations Crux and Carina, lie low on the southern horizon.  Scorpius has set claws-first into the southwestern horizon. And the bright star Canopus lies in the southeast sky in Carina, along with other notable stars of the southern-hemisphere summer.

You’ll see fewer bright stars this time of year because the Earth’s night sky looks out of the starry plane of the Milky Way galaxy into intergalactic space where, with a telescope, you can see dozens of galaxies in Pegasus and Andromeda, and many more in the southern constellations Grus, Sculptor, and Fornax.

Moon

Full Moon: November 2 at 19:14 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)
Last Quarter: November 9 at 15:56 GMT
New Moon: November 16 at 19:14 GMT
First Quarter: November 24 at 9:39 GMT

Planets

Mercury is lost in the sun’s glare this month.  On November 5, it passes behind the sun’s disk, a rare event but entirely unobservable, even in a telescope.

Venus rises about an hour before the sun in early November, and gets closer to the sun as the month wears on.

Mars hasn’t been much of a presence for many months.  But it’s getting a little higher and brighter now, rising by about 9:30 p.m. local time at month’s end in the constellation Cancer.  Mars is about as bright as Betelgeuse and has a disk about 10 arc-seconds across.  In a telescope at high magnification, you may see a few surface features on the red planet.  Try to observe it when it’s higher in the sky… well after midnight.  If that’s past your bedtime, don’t worry.  The view will be better, and earlier, in December.

Jupiter is still the bright object in the southern sky.  You can’t miss it just after sunset.  It’s always worth at least casual inspection, if at least to see its moons dance around from night to night.   Neptune is just a few degrees away from Jupiter.

Saturn is visible high in the sky in Virgo at dawn.  The rings are just 3-4 degrees from edge-on.

Uranus is east of Jupiter, in the constellation Aquarius.  It shines at magnitude 5.8, and is easily visible in a telescope or binoculars just south of the Circlet of Pisces.

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Celestial Events

There’s another meteor shower this month: the Leonids.  The peak should occur after midnight on November 16.  Last year’s display had an unexpected peak of 100 meteors/hour, and some meteor forecasters think this year could be even better.  While the radiant is in Leo, you can see the Leonids anywhere in the sky.  The meteors are tiny particles left over from the periodic Comet Temple/Tuttle.