Most accurate from mid-northern latitudes of approximately 36-40 degrees, north;
(e.g. San Francisco, U.S.A. ** Madrid, Spain ** Tokyo, Japan)
Copyright (c) 1995 Pete Harris; **Back to Star Facts Home Page**
Updated for the month of: November, 1995
November, 1995 brings a specutacular grouping of three planets, the likes of which won't be seen again for about another 100 years! Between November 15 and November 27, lying low in the southwestern sky, between 30 and 45 minutes after sunset, the planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter appear very close to each other and, at times, almost on top of each other. Each day brings a different pattern formed by the three planets, and the order in which they appear also changes during this period.
You can tell the three planets apart by their brightness and color. Venus is by far the brightest and is stark white in color. Jupiter is second brightest and more of a cream color. Mars is significantly dimmer than the other two, but stands out due to its salmon color which is clearly visible with binoculars (don't confuse the planet Mars with the star Antares, meaning "rival of Mars" which is to its lower left, actually a little brighter at this time, and a very similar color).
The highlights of this amazing celestial procession occur on November 18, 19, 22 and 23. On November 18 and 19, the three planets are closest together as a trio. On November 22, Venus and Mars appear almost on top of each other (Mars is actually much further away). On November 23 a very thin crescent moon joins the trio for a really spectacular sight! (See Astronomy Magazine's web page The Night Sky in November for diagram of the November 23 alignment and further description).
In order to see these sights you need an unobstructed view of the southwestern horizon and you need to look at just the right time. Look too early and the twighlight will still be too bright to see all three planets. Look too late and one or more of the planets will have set. But, if you look just right you'll see a real treat.
The famous Ring Nebula, also known as M57, is one of the strangest looking sights in the night time sky. Under low to medium magnification (35-100 power) with at least a 6 inch reflector telescope, it appears as a small pale-blue donut or smoke ring, surrounding what appears to be an empty hole. When you see it for the first time it looks unreal, as if it isn't really out there in space but something somebody painted on the lens or mirror of your telescope. (See University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory website for beautiful time exposure photograph of the Ring Nebula - don't expect to see such color, size or detail in your telescope).
To find the Ring Nebula, first find the star Vega (in the constellation Lyra). Vega is currently the brightest star visible in the evening sky from mid-northern latitudes. It is the northwest corner of the "Summer Triangle", which also includes the bright stars Deneb and altair. During November the Summer Triangle is visible a bit west of directly overhead when darkness falls, and moves west as the evening goes on. Along the imaginary line between Vega and Altair (Altair is the south-most corner of the Summer Triangle), about one half fist width from Vega, are two dim stars in a diagonal line. The Ring Nebula is almost exactly in the middle of these two dim stars. You need a telescope to see it.
The Ring Nebula is the best known member of a class of stars called "planetary nebula". Despite the name they have nothing to do with planets. They are dying stars. It is believed our own sun will one day end its existence as a planetary nebula. (See Star Facts article for November, 1995 The Ring Nebula - The Ghost of a Sun That Once Was for more complete explanation of planetary nebulae).
The night of November 17 to 18 marks the peak of the yearly Leonid meteor shower. Increased meteor activity should extend from approximately November 14 to November 21. The frequency of possible "shooting stars" around the time of the peak is about 15 per hour, or approximately one every four minutes. (See the International Meteor Organization's 1995 Meteor Shower Calendar for list of all meteor showers visible in 1995).
The best time to watch a meteor shower is after midnight local standard time. (See August's Star Facts article, Meteor Showers and Shooting Stars After Midnight, and Why You Don't Have to Clean the Bugs Off the Rear Windshield, for explanation).The best way to watch is to lie down on a lawn chair or on the ground and look up for several minutes with just your unaided eye. The overwhelming number of meteors that are seen are only the size of a grain of sand or small pebble and burn up in the Earths atmosphere. The point at which we see their glowing streak across the sky is thought to be about 40 - 60 miles above the Earth. This shower is called Leonid because the "shooting stars" appear to all be coming from a point in the constellation Leo. There is actually no connection between the shower and Leo.
The Leonids are especially interesting because they appear to "storm" every 33 years, that is the frequency of meteors increases dramatically. The last major storm occurred in 1966, when meteors were seen at a rate of 40 per second! It is anticipated that the next storm will occur in 1999. It will be interesting to see if this year's show begins to pick up the pace from the more normal 15 per hour.
If it seems like the day to day differences in the length of days is greater now than at some other times of the year, it's not your imagination. It is greater at this time of year. The day to day changes in length of day are greatest at the time of the Spring and Autumn equinoxes and are least in mid-summer and mid-winter.
The star Algol, meaning "Demon Star", belongs to one category of variable stars called "eclipsing variables". (See Star Facts article for October, 1995 The Mysterious Demon Star Dims...Then Brightens for fuller explanation). Variable stars change their brightness over a period of time. Algol gets dimmer approximately once every 2 days and 20 hours. It stays near its dimmest for about 2 hours, with the entire fading and brightening process lasting about 7 hours.
Algol is best seen beginning in autumn and into early winter. It is found in the northern constellation Perseus. See diagram below for graphical representation of Algol's position relative to Cassiopeia. The easiest way to find it is to face north and locate the constellation Cassiopeia, which looks like a giant and slightly squashed letter "M" in the northern sky. During early evening hours in November the "M" is positioned sideways rather than right -side-up and Algol is not really high enough to see until about 8:00 p.m. (standard time). Extend the imaginary line from the "M" 's bottom center point to its top right point about 1 1/2 fist widths further (width of closed fist with arm extended) to a region to the upper right of the "M". In this region find a fairly bright star (not quite as bright as the stars that form the "M") in the center of a group of stars with no clear shape, this group is the constellation Persues. Algol is found a little less than 1 fist width above this central star (or above and right of, depending on time of night). Algol, in its bright state is about the same brightness as the central star.
Some of the times during November 1995, when Algol reaches its dimmest point during North American night-time hours, given in Eastern Standard Time, are Nov 1 at 1:35 a.m., Nov 3 at 10:24 p.m., Nov 6 at 7:13 p.m., Nov 18 at 6:28 a.m., Nov 21 at 3:17 a.m., Nov 24 at 12:06 a.m., and Nov 26, at 8:55 p.m. Some other times given in Universal Time (UT), Greenwich England, are Nov 9 at 21:02, Nov 12 at 17:51, Nov 15 at 14:40 and Nov 29 at 22:44
To see Algol's changes in brightness use binoculars to look at it and some of the surrounding stars of similar brightness, one or two nights before the dates of its dimmest points. Make a sketch on a piece of paper with some notes about how it compares with one or two other stars. Then look again around the time of one of its dimmest points. See how the observations compare. At its dimmest, Algol should be about half the brightness that it is most of the time.
Andromeda, shown as M31 on star charts, and known as the "Great Galaxy", is a galaxy 2.2 million light years away from the Milky Way, made up of hundreds of billions of stars. It is the furthest object in the universe that can be seen with the unaided eye, although that is only possible from very dark, clear locations. It is quite visible with binoculars or a low power eyepiece on a telescope. (See Star Facts article for September, 1995, The Andromeda Galaxy - the Most Distant Thing Human Eyes Can See" for further description).
Andromeda is best seen beginning in late summer and throughout the autumn. It is found in the constellation that bears its name - Andromeda. The easiest way to find it is to face north and locate the constellation Cassiopeia, which looks like a giant and slightly squashed letter "M" in the sky. During early evening hours in November the "M" is positioned sideways rather than right -side-up. Using the left half of the "M" as an imaginary arrowhead, go about 1 1/2 fist widths (the width of your clenched fist held up to the sky at arms length) in the direction the arrowhead points in. Scan this area with binoculars to find the fuzzy patch of light that is Andromeda. Sweep back and forth over the area until you begin seeing its dim outer regions that give it an oval shape. (See beautiful time-exposure Photo of Andromeda from Jason Ware's home page).
Four moderately bright stars, called the "Great Square" dominate the evening sky during autumn. The Great Square is easily recognizable because it is surrounded by what appears to be mostly empty sky. During early evening hours in November it is found a bit east of directly overhead, passing overhead at about 10:00 p.m. (standard time), and moving west as the night goes on. During late autumn evening hours it is virtually overhead as darkness falls, and moves west as the night goes on.
There are several interesting facts about the Great Square:
- It is actually a rectangle, not a square; but the "Great Rectangle" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
- The Great Square is not actually considered a constellation. It is part of the larger constellation Pegasus (the "Winged Horse" - good luck trying to see a horse). The Great Square is considered an "asterism" - a recognizable pattern in the sky that is part of one or more constellations. (Another example of an asterism is the Big Dipper, which is part of the larger constellation Ursa Major - the Big Bear).
- One of the four stars of the Great Square, the northeast corner, is actually not in Pegasus at all, it is officially in the neighboring constellation Andromeda. So the Great Square of Pegasus, which is really a rectangle, probably should be called the Great Triangle of Pegasus. So much for the geometry discussion.
During autumn evenings, as the sun goes down, and darkness begins to take over, look directly overhead for the first stars that become visible. They will probably be 3 bright stars that form a distinctive triangular pattern. It is a landmark of summer, still visible in autumn, called the Summer Triangle. The 3 stars which form this pattern are Vega, Deneb and Altair. Each of these stars is actually part of a different constellation. Vega is northwest-most of the three and is part of the small constellation Lyra. Deneb is east-most and is at the top of the "Northern Cross", or officially called "Cygnus" (the Swan). Altair is south-most and part of the constellation Aquila.
Vega is the brightest of the three stars. Vega is "only" 26 light years away. It is so bright mostly because of its closeness. It is actually a relatively small star, about the size of our sun. Altair is even closer. It is "only" 17 light years away. Deneb, on the other hand, is a supergiant, with a diameter hundreds of times bigger than the other two. Deneb is 1800 light years away!. It is one of the furthest stars we can see with the unaided eye. Its size and brightness are so immense that even at its great distance, it appears to us almost as bright as Vega.
One more interesting fact about Vega. It has an important role in our future. In about 12,000 years the Earth will have changed its angle so that Vega will be virtually directly above our north pole. It will then be our North Star. (See Star Facts article for June, 1995, "There Will Come a Time When We No Longer Have a North Star" for further explanation)
During November, 1995 Saturn is well up in the southeast by 7:00 p.m. standard time. It's highest around 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.. To find it, locate the Great Square of Pegasus (for help with finding it see entry above titled "The 'Great Square' dominates Autumn Sky"). The two stars with the widest spacing in the Great Square face south. Scan about 1 1/2 fist widths in a southerly direction from the middle of those two stars to find Saturn.
About seven years ago the planet Saturn reached its greatest tilt toward the Earth so that a good deal of the surface of its spectacular rings showed to us. Even small telescopes revealed a magnificent view of the rings. Since then, its angle relative to us has been straightening. In 1995 and 1996 the angle of the rings becomes edge-on to Earth on three separate occasions - May 22, 1995; Aug 10, 1995; and Feb 11, 1996. (See Hubble Space Telescope Image of Saturn Ring-Plane Crossing taken Aug. 10, 1995). Since the rings are believed to be only about 1 mile thick, the fully edge-on view causes them to disappear from view. The rings are visible during some of this period and not visible at other times, as they alternate between fully edge-on and slightly off edge-on. During some of the times they are visible they are actually very bright, though thin, because we are looking through the full depth , as opposed to seeing through them. Use a 70 to 100 power eyepiece on a telescope to see them when visible. They protrude on either side of the planet. Look for the shadow of the rings across the middle of the planet. In about seven years from now Saturn will again reach its greatest tilt toward Earth and the rings will once again present a spectacular sight.
The next full moon occurs on the night of November 6-7, 1995. The moon is full when it is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun, so that the part of the moon that faces us also faces the sun. Therefore, at the time of a full moon, the moon rises in the east at the same time that the sun sets in the west.
The best times to view the moon with binoculars or telescope is definitly not around the times of a full moon. It is during the times when the moon is in the crescent to half moon shape. It is at this time that the shadows on the moon are the longest, making the craters and mountains on the moon more visible and three dimensional. The best place to look is around the areas where the light and dark sides of the moon meet. This dividing line, called the "terminator", is where sunset or sunrise is occuring on the moon, and shadows are the longest.
Send suggestions, astronomy tips, corrections or comments to Pete
via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pete is also the creator of the website