Our Current Sky

Our Current Sky

our-current-skiesWhat’s Up in Southwest Florida’s November Skies: Meteors. Plus: Venus/Jupiter conjunction, Saturn,  Mars and welcome back to Mercury…

Just after sunset, shining low in the west-southwest is tiny Mercury, speediest of the planets. It has rejoined us as an “evening star” — a planet visible in the bright post-sunset sky before the actual stars! Look above the bright speck of Mercury and slightly farther south for the shining of Saturn as well.

As soon as it gets dark, medium-high in the southwest, Saturn shines with a steady light at about the brightness of a bright star. With a small telescope, you can enjoy the sight of Saturn’s rings at near-maximum inclination to our line of sight: this year has been the best view Saturn ever gives us of its rings and northern polar region.

To the left of Saturn is a group of eight medium-bright stars in the shape of a teapot (give it curved sides to make it look more teapot-like). The handle is on the left and the spout, tipped down a bit, is on the right. The Teapot is made up of the main stars in the constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer.

This year is the right time to look at Saturn through a telescope: it’s at maximum tilt (26.6 degrees) to show the rings off to best advantage. You’ll have a great view of the biggest gap in the rings: the Cassini division. Sounds like a band, doesn’t it? The big gap between inner rings and outer rings was discovered in 1675 by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, namesake of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. If you waited 7.5 years, those rings would be edge-on and you would be lucky to see them from Earth as a straight line across Saturn’s middle!  If you just see one moon near Saturn, that’s Titan. It’s HUGE!  Titan is 50% larger than our own moon. It orbits Saturn about every 16 Earth days. Our moon takes 27.3 days to orbit Earth relative to the background stars, but 29.5 days to go from full to full (because Earth is also moving along our orbit around the Sun during that month!).

  • November 4 Full Moon. This means the Moon is directly opposite the Sun in Earth’s sky and so is fully illuminated as seen from Earth. This phase occurs at 18:40 UTC. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Hunters Moon because at this time of year the leaves are falling and the game has put on its fat to last through winter. This moon has also been known as the Travel Moon and the Blood Moon. In agrarian cultures, this moon is also known as the Harvest Moon. The Harvest Moon is the full moon that occurs closest to the September equinox each year.
  • November 10 – Last (3rd) Quarter Moon — this rises about midnight, so the early part of the night is pretty dark.
  • November 11 – peak of the Taurid meteor shower, however, this shower (northern and southern branches) runs all month long at a low level.
  • November 13 — Conjunction! Venus and Jupiter will get together in the November sky below the waning crescent Moon, and early risers (6 am observation time) with a clear view of the eastern horizon can catch a view of this celestial rendezvous. Just before sunrise Monday (Nov. 13), Venus and Jupiter will pass within 17 arc minutes (0.28 degrees) of each other in the sky, or just over half the apparent width of the moon. The two planets will also be fairly close to each other in the days just ahead of and just after the conjunction, of course — Venus is moving closer to the Sun in our sky each day. Do NOT look at this too close to sunrise, which is 6:45, or you can burn your retinas!
  • November 17 – peak of the Leonid meteor shower. The Leonids are best seen pre-dawn, peaking around 3 a.m. today.
  • November 18 – New Moon means the Moon is between Earth and the Sun (not perfectly, or there would be a solar eclipse again!), so of course the New Moon is never visible in the night sky. This phase occurs at 19:12 UTC. New Moon is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to make the sky too bright to see the faint stuff.
  • November 26 – First Quarter Moon — means the moon is high above your southern horizon at sunset.
  • November 28 – the November Orionids is a minor shower, meaning maybe 3 meteors/hour above the usual background levels. Fast meteors!

Orion, king of the winter constellations, starts making an appearance around 9 pm in the eastern sky right up to dawn, followed by his two hunting dogs, one of which (Canis Major) contains the brightest star in our night sky, Sirius (the Dog Star).

Venus dominates the pre-dawn eastern horizon planet lineup and will be bright in the sky above the sunrise each day, well below the dim reddish-orange dot of Mars, moving downward from just above, to beside, to beneath the bright planet Jupiter on November 12th, 13th and 14th respectively in our predawn eastern sky — you can see this anywhere from 6 am to 6:30 or so low in the east if the eastern horizon is clear. Well above Venus and Jupiter, that reddish-orange dot that shines with a steady light is, as previously mentioned, Mars (almost at the far side of its orbit, so not as bright as it gets by any means!).

Heather Preston, Planetarium Director, Calusa Nature Center Planetarium, Fort Myers, FL

Astronomy News Bulletins:

  • Exploding Supernova will change Cygnus

Calvin College professor Larry Molnar and his students along with colleagues from Apache Point Observatory (Karen Kinemuchi) and the University of Wyoming (Henry Kobulnicky) are predicting a change to the night sky that will be visible to the naked eye.

“It’s a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion,” Molnar said of his bold prognostication. “It’s never been done before.”

Molnar’s prediction is that a binary star (two stars orbiting each other) he is monitoring will merge and explode in 2022, give or take a year; at which time the star will increase its brightness ten thousand fold, becoming one of the brighter stars in the heavens for a time. The star will be visible as part of the constellation Cygnus, and will add a star to the recognizable Northern Cross star pattern.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2017-01-astronomers-explosion-night-sky.html

  • Pro-AmComet Observing Invitation

Get in on the Pro-Am Comet Observing Action! Remember, the campaign starts later THIS MONTH: https://astronomynow.com/2016/11/24/worldwide-pro-am-help-sought-for-comet-trio-study/. The actual page with details is at the Planetary Sciences Institute, here: http://www.psi.edu/41P45P46P


Useful Sites for Backyard Astronomers…

Here is an off-site excellent summary (opens in new page) of night sky observables this month…

The International Space Station is visible some nights, and is very bright! For specific visibility direction, greatest altitude, and time at your location: https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

The Hubble Space Telescope is visible some nights.  For specific times and routes: http://www.heavens-above.com/