Looking at the sky in the late evening around 11 p.m., prominent constellations and stars are the Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major, high in the northeast, and the Little Dipper high in the north. Cygnus with Deneb, Lyra with Vega and Aquila with Altair are now low in the northwest. These three stars form the summer triangle. It’s perhaps comforting that in Alaska we can see this summer triangle all winter along, albeit near the horizon.
Cassiopeia appears overhead, in the zenith, Pegasus’ square/diamond in the southwest. In the east, Gemini with Castor and Pollux, Cancer with the Beehive cluster and Leo have risen, following Orion with red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel, which are now quite high in the southeast (that’s why I chose the late evening for my description). Auriga with Capella and Taurus with Aldebaran, the Pleiades star cluster and currently with the very bright Jupiter appear now high in the south.
If we could only observe it, we’d see that around 5 p.m. Mars, Mercury, sun, Saturn and Venus all set at the same time. But of course, when the sun is out, our atmosphere’s brightness overpowers the planets.
Ultrabright Venus itself though rises in the mornings around 6 a.m. in the southeast and is visible throughout all of November and December.
Saturn joins Venus later this month, with the two being really close between Nov. 23 and Nov. 30. Look for really bright Venus with a fainter Saturn right next to it. The waning crescent moon joins Venus on Nov. 11 and Saturn on Nov. 12.
Toward the end of the month, even Mercury could be glimpsed beneath the two, but that’s pushing it as dawn gets quite light around 8:30 a.m.
A very bright Jupiter can be seen all night long in Taurus, just left of Aldebaran, seemingly traveling east to west, pairing with the virtually full moon on Nov. 1 and 28. These two dates actually tell us that our moon takes about 27 days for one orbit (more accurate 27.3, the siderial month); to conclude its phases takes 2.2 days longer (i.e., a total of 29.5 days, the synodic month) because we advance in our orbit around our sun, changing our relative position to sun and moon. Thus, the moon takes that much longer to catch up with its phases.
Neptune and Uranus can be seen low in the southwest early in the evening, especially Uranus should be a fine target with good binoculars. A good finder chart can be found at www.nakedeyeplanets.com/uranus.htm. Start right beneath Pegasus’ square. The first quarter and then gibbous moon leads the way to these gaseous planets on Nov. 19 and 22, respectively. On No. 22 itself, view our moon, notice the Pisces’ circlet of seven stars to its right and greenish Uranus to its lower left.
The Leonid meteor show peaks in the morning hours of Nov. 17.
A total solar eclipse takes place Nov. 14. If you have friends in northeastern Australia, they can tell you all about it. Lunar and solar eclipses always come in pairs two weeks apart. While the lunar eclipse in the morning of Nov. 28 can be viewed from western North America, it is only a penumbral one, i.e., only a section of Earth’s shadow and some sunlight fall on the full moon, making it not much darker.
This is a good month for observing Jupiter. The diagram that is pictured shows how Jupiter’s largest moons are arranged during the first week in the mornings. See if you can match these diagrams by observing the moons with binoculars. They all orbit Jupiter within a few days. From our viewpoint on Earth they are edge-on. That is, it’s as if we’re looking a dinner plate from the edge with marbles rolling on it (see if you can figure out with this plate-marble experiment why an outer moon is able to appear closer to Jupiter than an inner moon). Compare these diagrams with each other and notice that Callisto, the outermost and therefore slowest moon, is easily recognizable as it moves farther and farther left of Jupiter.
Andy Veh is an associate professor of physics, math and astronomy at Kenai Peninsula College.
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