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November: November's cool nights offer lots of telescopic sights--especially if you like planets. Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn are the headliners this month.

Jupiter Still Rules

Although it's three months past opposition, Jupiter remains well placed for telescopic viewing. Around mid-November, the -2.3-magnitude searchlight hangs due south as the sky darkens. Just bear in mind that Jupiter sets before midnight, so don't delay your telescopic inspection of the planet much past nightfall. Due to its increasing distance from Earth, Jupiter is now 39" diameter--about 20% less than when it was at opposition. None the less, it still appears substantially larger than any other planet. On the 23rd you'll find a 6 1/2-day-old Moon a few degrees above it.

As November opens, Mars is in Cancer, rises before midnight, and by daybreak is nearing the meridian. The 0.4-magnitude planet certainly dresses up the drab area of sky between Gemini and Leo. On the morning of November 1st (night of October 31st), watch the ochre world drift in front of the sprawling Beehive Cluster. The planet's gibbous disk (89% sunlit) will be barely 8" wide at the time, but a high-power telescopic view will prove interesting as the planet drifts across the cluster. Less than an hour is enough time to notice Mars's motion. By the 2nd, the Red Planet will be immediately east of the cluster and will cross the border into Leo on the last day of the month.


As November progresses, Saturn slowly climbs higher in the morning sky. Around the middle of the month, the 1.0-magnitude planet rises roughly four hours ahead of the Sun and stands halfway up the eastern sky at sunrise. Watch for a pretty crescent Moon to the right of Saturn on the 12th. Telescopically, the planet presents a disk 17" wide. The ring system is opening again, this time with its north face visible. At mid-month the rings are angled 3.8[degrees]--almost as widely open as they were in mid-May.

Venus is still a morning object but it's sinking lower in the twilight each day. As November opens, the -3.9-magnitude beacon is in Virgo near 1st-magnitude Spica. The view should be a pretty one with the separation between the two objects being 4[degrees] or less from November 1st to 4th. But it's all downhill after that. By mid-month, Venus will clear the east-southeast horizon only 1V4 hours ahead of the Sun and stand 12[degrees] high at sunrise. Venus' pure-white disk (10" wide and 97% sunlit) will display little of interest in telescopes.


The naked-eye view of Venus is more rewarding. Look eastward on the 14th when a thin crescent Moon forms the vertex of a narrow right-angle triangle with Spica above and Venus below. The next morning, a mere sliver of a Moon (36 hours before new) will float to the right, and slightly below Venus. Viewed from southern Florida around 6 a.m., standard time, the Moon will appear 6V20 to the right of Venus, with the pair only about 5[degrees] above the horizon.

Mercury passes through superior conjunction on the 5th and is too close to the Sun for viewing this month. The solar system's smallest planet will become an evening star in December, but the view will be truly "mercurial."

And asteroid hunters take note: During the pre-dawn hours of the 24th, 7.8-magnitude Vesta will be easy to spot V3[degrees] north of the orangey, 5.7-magnitude star 37 Leonis, itself an easy 22/3[degrees] hop northeast of 1.4-magnitude Regulus.

Sampling the November Deep Sky

Compared to the marquee winter constellations lurking near the eastern horizon, Aquarius and Capricornus have little star appeal. Still, two fine planetary nebulas in this region are worth the price of admission.

We begin with an oddball planetary 3,000 light-years away in western Aquarius. The Saturn Nebula, NGC 7009, is named for its similarity to the iconic ringed planet when seen almost edge-on, as it is this year. You'll find this fuzzy Saturn 11/3[degrees] west of 4.5-magnitude Nu (v) Aquarii, which forms the vertex of an isosceles triangle with 4th-magnitude Iota (1) and Theta (9) Capricorni below. In a 6-inch scope at high magnification, the 8.0-magnitude Saturn Nebula presents a distinctly oblate disk spanning about 25" by 20"--similar in size and shape to its namesake planet.

As with Saturn's rings when they're edge-on, the threadlike "rings" of the Saturn Nebula are hard to spot. Called ansae, the needle-like extensions sprout east and west from the disk's midsection. Although the ansae can be detected in small scopes under ideal conditions, I consider them challenging even in mid-size instruments at high power. Stare awhile, and if the nebula looks tapered at each end, it's a clue that the ansae are almost within your grasp. A high magnification view also might tease the 12th-magnitude central star from the nebula's greenish disk.




For a completely different planetary nebula, try the ghostly Helix Nebula, NGC 7293. To locate this puffy ring, begin at 2.5-magnitude Alpha ([alpha]) Pegasi, or Markab, on the southwest corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. About two-thirds of the way between Markab and 1st-magnitude Fomalhaut, low in the south, is 3.3-magnitude Delta ([delta]) Aquarii. Delta along with 4.7-magnitude 66 Aquarii and 5.2-magnitude Upsilon ([upsilon]) point the way to the Helix, which is situated roughly 1[degrees] west of Upsilon. But beware: although the Helix is quite close (approximately 650 light-years away), impressively large (1/4[degrees] wide), and bright (magnitude 7.3), you might pass right by it!

The problem with the Helix is that its light is spread over a large area, so the nebula appears much dimmer than its listed magnitude. You'll need a dark sky, low power, and possibly a nebula filter to locate it. In a wide-field telescope, the Helix should materialize as a diffuse, oblong patch--perhaps with a dusky central hole. If your scope is large enough, you might also glimpse the 13.5-magnitude central star. A UHC or O III nebula filter will enhance the contrast between the nebula's misty wreath and the surrounding sky. Indeed, I'd say that unless conditions are near-perfect, a filter is essential for hauling in the Helix. But what isn't essential is big optics. Under dark skies, I've even glimpsed the Helix in unfiltered 7 x 50 binoculars.

At magnitude 2.9, Delta Capricorni is the brightest star in Capricornus. From Delta, dive 8[degrees] southwest to 3.8-magnitude Zeta (Q, then turn east-southeast and go nearly 4[degrees] to 5.2-magnitude 41 Capricorni. Less than 1/2[degrees] west-northwest of that star is the curious globular M30.

About 27,000 light-years away, M30 glows at magnitude 7.3 and is 12' diameter. The brightest cluster stars are barely 12th magnitude, so this dim hive is not easily resolved in small scopes. Another hurdle is the fact that M30 resides at -23[degrees] declination, and suffers from atmospheric blurring due to its low altitude. But if nothing else, M30 has great "legs." Mid-size reflectors should reveal four stubby chains of stars protruding northward. Although southern observers have the best chance of appreciating this leggy structure, I can see it from my observing site near the 49th parallel.

We finish in Aquarius, at a 4[degrees]-wide, Y-shaped asterism called the Water Jar. This lovely binocular sight is formed by 3.8-magnitude Gamma ([gamma]), 4.0-magnitude Eta ([eta]), 4.8-magnitude Pi ([pi]), and 3.6-magnitude Zeta ([zeta]) Aquarii. The latter star, at the center of the Y, is a tight binary that will test your small telescope. Zeta's 4.3- and 4.5-magnitude components are slightly less than 2" apart. For a clean split, you'll need good optics, high magnification, and steady atmospheric seeing.


Early October: 11 p.m.*

Late October: 10 p.m.*

Early November: 8 p.m.

Late November: 7 p.m.

* Daylight-saving time



Nov 1 Mars visits the Beehive cluster.

Nov 5 Mercury in conjunction with the Sun.

Nov 7 Moon at perigee (229,226 mi).

Nov 17 Leonid meteor shower.

Nov 22 Moon at apogee (251,489 mi).

Nov 2 Full Moon

Nov 9 Last Quarter

Nov 16 New Moon

Nov 24 First Quarter




November Meteors

The Leonid meteor shower comes to maximum during the small hours of November 17th. The Leonids, normally a shower of modest strength, will enjoy a moonless night this year, so keep your eyes peeled for meteors once Leo rises around midnight. Shower members streak from a radiant located near 2nd-magnitude Algieba, Gamma ([gamma]) Leonis, in the Sickle.


The Crab Nebula

A stellar tombstone lies in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. It is the Crab Nebula, Ml. The Crab is a supernova remnant--the shredded remains of an exploded star. The light from that cataclysmic explosion reached Earth on July 4, 1054. The records of Chinese skywatchers tell of a brilliant "guest star" in eastern Taurus that remained visible in broad daylight for three weeks, and shone at night for months longer before fading from view.

In 1731, English amateur astronomer John Bevis discovered an obscure nebula in the same part of Taurus. It turned out to be the expanding debris from the supernova. French comet hunter Charles Messier chanced upon the object in 1758 and made it the first entry in his now-famous catalog of deep-sky objects. The nickname "Crab" surfaced in the mid-19th century when Irish astronomer William Parsons made a sketch showing ragged filaments--the shrapnel from the supernova explosion--that vaguely suggested the legs of a crab.

You can view this fascinating object by aiming your scope about 1 [degrees] northwest of 3rd-magnitude Zeta ([zeta]) Tauri, which marks one "horn" of the Bull. The 8th-magnitude Crab is approximately 6' by 4' and looks like an egg shaped smudge in backyard telescopes. In bigger scopes under dark country skies, Ml becomes an oval cloud that's narrower and dimmer at one end. High power might reveal its patchy texture and hints of the tenuous filaments. However, the energetic pulsar (the surviving core of the exploded star) that powers the nebula is beyond the range of amateur instruments.


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Title Annotation:SKY DIARY
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Previous Article:October: four planets await early birds at dawn. But if you're a night owl instead, you can enjoy the king of the evening sky, Jupiter.
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