Saturday, November 1, 2014

The November Sky

With new month of November upon us, the nights are coming increasingly early on account of both the Sun's motion and the big event of the month: the return to Standard Time, which occurs on the morning of the 2nd. Also by November, the fall sky has firmly taken its place high overhead by nightfall (not to be confused with sunset), which will occur by dinnertime (for most) come month’s end.

Cool Constellations
By nightfall in November the fall constellations are all very well-placed for early (emphasis, early!) evening viewing. First up, with the return to Standard Time, we will have one last chance to see the summer constellations, provided you have a good South and West horizon. Hurry, though, they'll quickly disappear for good for the year, though. Moving onto more mainstream for the time of year sights, the Great Square of Pegasus is high overhead, the Big Dipper is scraping the Northern horizon, and the Summer Triangle is starting to dive in the West. Starting at the Great Square, look at the double string of stars coming of third base as they constitute Andromeda. High in the Northeast is ‘W’-shaped Cassiopeia, house-like Cepheus, and a twisted ‘V’ of stars, the mythological hero Perseus. Below Perseus is the bright Capella, alpha Auriga, and below his feet, the cloudy patch that is the Pleiades. In the South, save bright Fomalhaut, all the constellations, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, and Cetus, are very dim. If you stay up later into the middle of the night, you'll see bright Orion, Gemini, and Canis Major. Early birds? Leo and Virgo will be headlining the spring (it's only 4 ½ months away!) constellations.

Planetary Perceptions
Like September before it, October isn't shaping up to be all that great of a month for planets. Why? Most of the planets are rather close to the Sun. Starting in the evening, both Mars and Saturn are visible, though Mars is now a dusk object hanging low in the South-Southwest and Saturn? Well, the first few days of the month provide the last chance to see it before it disappears into the Sun's glare. By month's end, Saturn will have disappeared into the Sun's glare. The good news: if you have an extremely good Eastern horizon, you have a chance to see it low in the Eastern predawn sky again by month's end. Venus? Completely MIA this month. On the other hand, Jupiter is visible for pretty much the second half of the night, coming to its meridian transit at dawn come month's end. At month's start, Mercury is putting on its best morning appearance of the year and it will continue to be an easy sight for the first week of the new month and still a relatively easy target (for Mercury) even through mid-November.

Tonight's Sky for November 1: Mercury at its Best
Want to join a small club of people who have seen the planet Mercury? Well, here's your chance as the first planet from the Sun is making its best summer appearance right now in the predawn sky.

Of all the Classical Planets (those known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans), Mercury is by far the hardest to spot because, as seen from Earth, it never gets very far away from the Sun. As a result, Mercury is often obscured from view by the Sun's glare.

As of today, Mercury has reached a point in its orbit called greatest elongation, which is a fancy way of saying that, as seen from Earth, Mercury is as far from the Sun as it will get on this orbit and making its best morning appearance of the year. How good is it? So good that Mercury rises about an hour and a half before the Sun! So good that, even 30 minutes before sunrise, Mercury is still about 10 degrees up from the horizon. To simulate, hold your fist vertically at arm's length. While that may not seem overly high, for elusive Mercury, that's quite good.

So, take a moment or two, go out just before dawn, and try to spot Mercury. If you are successful in spotting the speedy planet, you are accomplishing something that the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who rediscovered the idea of a sun-centered solar system) supposedly never did. 

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