FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 13
■ Spot Altair shining high in the southwest soon after dark. Brighter Vega shines three or four fists to its right.
Two distinctive little constellations lurk above Altair: Delphinus the Dolphin, hardly more than a fist at arm's length to its upper left, and smaller, fainter Sagitta the Arrow, slightly less far to Altair's upper right. Sky too bright? Use binoculars!.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 14
■ Draw a line from Altair to Vega, continue the line onward by half as far, and you hit the Lozenge: the pointy-nosed head of Draco, the Dragon. Its brightest star is orange Eltanin, the tip of Draco's nose. He's always eyeing Vega. Dragons have a thing for jewels, I am told.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15
■ Around 8 p.m. standard time, depending on where you live, zero-magnitude Capella rises exactly as high in the northeast as zero-magnitude Vega has sunk in the northwest. How accurately can you time this? The tipping point in the Vega-Capella balance symb0lizes, to me, the seasonal change from warm evenings to cold ones.
■ New Moon (exact at 12:07 a.m. on this date EST).
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 16
■ Also around 8 p.m., Orion is clearing the eastern horizon. His three-star belt is nearly vertical. High above Orion shines orange Aldebaran. Above Aldebaran is the little Pleiades cluster, the size of your fingertip at arm's length. Capella shines far left of Aldebaran and the Pleiades.
Down below Orion, Sirius rises around 10 p.m. No matter where they are, Sirius always follows two hours behind Orion. Or equivalently, one month behind Orion.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 17
■ During twilight this evening, Saturn and Jupiter point diagonally down to the thin crescent Moon low in the southwest, as shown below. A new lunation has begun.
Left of the Moon, how many stars of the disappearing Sagittarius Teapot can you still discern? Can you get them all using binoculars?
■ Late tonight the Leonid meteor shower should be at its peak, and there's no Moon. Best time to watch: from about 3 a.m. until the beginning of Wednesday's dawn. That's when the shower's radiant point, in the Sickle of Leo, climbs high in the southeast. The Leonids have been weak in recent years, but under ideal dark-sky conditions you might count more than a dozen per hour. The numbers will be fewer under light pollution and earlier in the night. (You're guaranteed to see zero Leonids until the radiant rises, around 10 or 11 p.m.)
■ Around 8 or 9 p.m. this week, the Great Square of Pegasus stands at its level, boxy position very high toward the south. (It's straight overhead if you're as far south as Miami.) Its right (western) edge points very far down toward Fomalhaut. Its eastern edge points less directly toward Beta Ceti, less far down.
Now descending farther: If you have a very good view down to the south horizon — and if you're not much farther north than latitude 40°, roughly Denver, New York, or Madrid — picture an equilateral triangle with Fomalhaut and Beta Ceti as its top two corners. Near where the third corner would be (a bit to the right of that point) is Alpha Phoenicis, or Ankaa, in the constellation Phoenix. It's magnitude 2.4, not very bright but the brightest thing in its area. It has a yellow-orange tint; binoculars help check. Have you ever seen anything of the constellation Phoenix before?
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 18
■ The waxing crescent Moon hangs out with Jupiter and Saturn this evening and tomorrow evening, as shown above. Or so it appears. The Moon is 1.3 light-seconds distant from us, but Jupiter is currently 46 light-minutes away and Saturn is 87 light-minutes distant.
■ Meanwhile Altair (17 light-years away) shines high to the two planets' upper right, about halfway up the sky just after dark: halfway from the horizon to the zenith.
Altair is the bright eye of Aquila, the Eagle. Just upper right of Altair is 3rd-magnitude Tarazed. Down from there runs Aquila's dim backbone, along the Milky Way if you have a dark enough sky. Most of the Milky Way's glow comes from stars thousands of light-years away.
This arrangement reminds me of another Summer Triangle bird, Cygnus the Swan, whose long neck and backbone also run along the Milky Way. Cygnus currently flies high to Aquila's upper right.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 19
■ Now the Moon forms a flat triangle with Saturn and Jupiter, as shown above. The Moon forever creeps east from hour to hour against the background stars and planets. In the course of the evening, can you see the triangle change shape at all before it sets?
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 20
■ Whenever Fomalhaut is "southing" (crossing the meridian due south, which it does around 7 p.m. this week), the first stars of Orion are just about to rise above the east horizon for skywatchers in the world's mid-northern latitudes. And, the Pointers of the Big Dipper stand upright low due north, straight below Polaris.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21
■ The bowl of the Little Dipper descends in the evening at this time of year, left or lower left of Polaris. By about 11 p.m. it hangs straight down from Polaris.
■ As dawn brightens Mercury is still nicely visible in the east-southeast. Look for it lower left of Venus as shown below. Next week it will descend from sight down to the dawn horizon.
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury continues its dawn apparition low in the east-southeast. Look for it below or lower left of Venus about 45 minutes before sunrise. They're about 13° apart, a little more than a fist at arm's length. Mercury moves slightly lower from morning to morning but remains bright at magnitude –0.7.
Venus (magnitude –3.9, in Virgo) shines brightly in the east before and during dawn, not very high. Can you keep it in view all the way to sunrise and maybe after? Binoculars help.
Spica, only 1% as bright, passes Venus this week. Find Spica 5° lower right of Venus on the morning of the 14th, 4° directly right of Venus around the 17th to 19th depending on your latitude, and to Venus's upper right thereafter.
Mars (about magnitude –1.5, in Pisces) shines bright yellow in the east-southeast at dusk. Above it is the Great Square of Pegasus. A line from the Great Square's top star through its bottom star points straight at Mars. This configuration continues all week; Mars is at the stationary point of its retrograde loop (exactly stationary on the 15th).
Mars is a month past opposition and shrinking into the distance. It's still 17 or 16 arcseconds wide in a telescope, plenty big to show surface detail during steady seeing. The South Polar Cap has shrunk to a tiny white speck.
See Bob King's "A Great Year for Mars" in the October Sky & Telescope, page 48, and his Behold Mars! online. To get a map of the side of Mars facing Earth at the date and time you'll observe, you can use our Mars Profiler. The map there is square; remember to mentally wrap it onto the side of a globe. (Features near the map's edges become very foreshortened.)
Jupiter and Saturn (magnitudes –2.1 and +0.6, respectively) tilt farther down in the west-southwest during and after twilight. Jupiter is the bright one; Saturn is to its upper left. Watch their separation shrink from 4° to 3¼° this week, from November 13th to 20th. They'll pass 0.1° apart at conjunction on December 21st.
Don't expect much in a telescope; they're both farther and smaller than they were last summer, and the low-altitude seeing will probably be poor.
Uranus (magnitude 5.7, in Aries) is high in the east by 7 p.m., about 20° east (lower left) of Mars. Uranus is only 3.7 arcseconds wide, but that's enough to appear as a tiny fuzzy ball, not a point, at high power in even a good small telescope.
And while you're there, find the 9th-magnitude asteroid 8 Flora about 11° away. See Bob King's Tiny Asteroid Flora and Mighty Uranus Team Up with finder charts and more about both.
Neptune (magnitude 7.8, in Aquarius) is equally high in the south at that time. Neptune is 2.3 arcseconds wide, harder to resolve than Uranus except in very good seeing. Check in on all three of these faint targets when you're done with Mars. Finder charts for Uranus and Neptune.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America.
Eastern Standard Time, EST, is Universal Time minus 5 hours. (Universal Time is also known as UT, UTC, GMT, or Z time.)
Want to become a better astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.
This is an outdoor nature hobby. For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy.
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The basic standard is the Pocket Sky Atlas (in either the original or Jumbo Edition), which shows stars to magnitude 7.6.
Next up is the larger and deeper Sky Atlas 2000.0, plotting stars to magnitude 8.5; nearly three times as many. The next up, once you know your way around, are the even larger Interstellarum atlas (stars to magnitude 9.5) or Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And be sure to read how to use sky charts with a telescope.
Can a computerized telescope replace charts? Not for beginners, I don't think, and not on mounts and tripods that are less than top-quality mechanically, meaning heavy and expensive. And as Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."
Audio sky tour. Out under the evening sky with your
earbuds in place, listen to Kelly Beatty's monthly
podcast tour of the heavens above. It's free.
"The dangers of not thinking clearly are much greater now than ever before. It's not that there's something new in our way of thinking, it's that credulous and confused thinking can be much more lethal in ways it was never before."
— Carl Sagan, 1996
"Facts are stubborn things."
— John Adams, 1770
*Answer to why the Moon and the outer planets move opposite each other:
The Moon, planets, and most other objects in the solar system really do orbit in the same direction: from celestial west to east around their parent body, whatever that is. Moreover most planets and moons, and the Sun, also rotate in the same direction around their axes. All of this is a fossil remnant of the bulk rotation of the protosolar disk from which the Sun and planets condensed.
The trick is to grasp that Earth, our viewing platform, orbits faster around the Sun than the outer planets do. Therefore, when we see the outer planets in our evening sky, we see them falling behind us from night to night, "moving backward" (with respect to our sightline from Earth to Sun, i.e. the direction of sunset).
But Earth's position is fixed (or nearly so) with respect to our own orbiting Moon. So we see the Moon doing what it really is doing from night to night: moving west to east.
Yes it's confusing — until the moment you finally picture the arrangement correctly, then everything drops into place and seems obvious. Think what that must have felt like to Copernicus.