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30 Oct 2020

November Astronomy: The Bright Outer Planets Are on Display During the Evening, While the Inner Planets Appear in the Morning Twilight

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All three bright outer planets are in fine display during evenings in November 2020. Bright Jupiter is in the southwestern sky at dusk, with Saturn nearby, and the pair drawing ever more attention as the gap between them narrows; and bright, pumpkin-colored Mars, climbing high in the east-southeast, while beginning to fade.

The beautiful Pleiades star cluster is up all night just before Thanksgiving. Sirius, the brightest star, reaches its high point in the south around 3 a.m. on Nov. 13, backing to 2 a.m. on Nov. 28. The inner planets—Venus, and for most of month, Mercury—are prominent in the east-southeast morning twilight glow.

Standard time resumes on Nov. 1, the first Sunday of November. Remember to set your clocks back one hour. The result: Darker early-evening (by the clock) skies for sky watching, making the evening sky more accessible to younger children with early bedtimes. But we’ll get earlier sunrises, too, so morning sky watching become less convenient in November.

On Sunday morning, Nov. 1, the moon, just past full, remains in view for more than 45 minutes after sunrise, and longer each morning.

Daytime moon watch: Follow the waning moon daily at 8 a.m., and you’ll find it nearly full, 9 degrees up in the west-northwest on Nov. 3; half full (at last-quarter phase) and nearly 60 degrees up in the west-southwest on Nov. 8; and a 10 percent crescent 50 degrees up in the southeast to south-southeast on Nov. 12. Using binoculars at 8 a.m. that morning, can you spot Venus in the daytime, 4 to 5 degrees below and slightly to the left of the moon?

Planets and seasonal stars at dusk: Bright Jupiter is in the south-southwest to southwest, with Saturn 5.1 to 2.3 degrees to its upper left, building anticipation before their very close conjunction on Dec. 21. Mars is well up in the east-southeast, getting higher as November progresses. Stars: The Summer Triangle of Vega, Altair and Deneb moves west of overhead, chasing both Antares in the southwest and Arcturus in the west-northwest below horizon early in the month. Fomalhaut is climbing in the southeast to south-southeast, while Capella climbs upward from the northeastern horizon. Aldebaran appears very low in the east-northeast before month’s end.

In deepening twilight on evenings in late November and early December each year, not very far above the horizon in the east-northeast to east, watch for the appearance of the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, a beautiful star cluster nearly 450 light years away:

Many a night I saw the Pleiades

Rising thro’ the mellow shade,

Glittering like a swarm of fireflies,

Tangled in a silver braid.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, in Locksley Hall

This is an apt description of what you can witness, and binoculars provide wonderful views of the Pleiades! Rising in the east-northeast, within 14 degrees below the cluster, is the star Aldebaran. Although this star marks the eye of Taurus, the Bull, the name, translated from Arabic, means “the follower” (of the Pleiades). The Pleiades and Aldebaran are at opposition to the sun on Nov. 21 and Dec. 1, respectively, as our planet Earth passes between those stars and the sun. In 2020, our fast-moving planet overtook Jupiter and Saturn in July, and Mars in October, resulting in those planets taking their turns at opposition. Stand outdoors and visualize the motions of Earth and the other planets in 3-D space, and try to predict how the appearance of the sky will change in coming weeks and months.

Planets and seasonal stars at dawn: Venus is in the east-southeast to southeast, getting lower as the month progresses. Mercury appears to the lower left of Venus and brightens quickly early in the month, while approaching 4 degrees to the lower left of emerging Spica in a quasi-conjunction on Nov. 2. Venus passes 4 degrees north (to the upper left) of the same star in an actual conjunction on Nov. 16. Mercury reaches its greatest altitude in morning twilight on Nov. 10 and stays 13 degrees to the lower left of Venus for 10 mornings, Nov. 9-18. This is a very favorable apparition of Mercury, and an easy chance to see our solar system’s innermost planet!

Stars at dawn: Sirius, the brightest star, is in the southwest, getting lower as the month progresses. All of the bright stars of winter evenings have crossed into the western half of the sky. Note Orion’s shoulder, reddish Betelgeuse, and his foot, blue-white Rigel, with the Hunter’s three-star belt midway between. The belt extended in one direction points to Sirius, and in the opposite direction past Aldebaran to the Pleiades. Procyon completes the nearly equilateral Winter Triangle with Sirius and Betelgeuse. Capella is about midway between Orion’s belt and the North Star. Arcturus is ascending in the east-northeast to east, while Spica climbs past Venus into the southeast. Regulus is very high in the southeast to south.

The moon in November: In the morning sky, catch the waning crescent moon above Venus on Nov. 12; and to the lower left of Venus and above Mercury on Nov. 13. In the evening, see the waxing crescent moon to the lower right of Jupiter and Saturn on Nov. 18, and to their left on Nov. 19. On the evening of Nov. 25, watch the waxing gibbous moon pass 5 degrees south of Mars. For illustrations of most of these events, and of the planet-planet and planet-star pairings mentioned above, see the November 2020 Sky Calendar, which I designed and wrote, as the free sample at www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar.

At full moon on the night of Nov. 29-30, part of the moon will pass through the penumbra, or the dusky outer portion of Earth’s shadow. At deepest eclipse, at 1:43 a.m. early Monday morning, Nov. 30, the northern limb of the moon will appear only slightly shaded. This shallow dip of a portion of the moon into a barely detectable shadow is not especially noteworthy, but if you do watch it, you’ll find Aldebaran, red-orange eye of Taurus, within 5 degrees to the left of the moon.

A much more impressive lunar eclipse will occur on the morning of May 26, 2021. At 4:19 a.m., a colorful, totally eclipsed moon will be low in the southwest, and the red star Antares, heart of Scorpius, will be within 7 degrees to its left. That’ll be an eclipse you should not miss!

It happens that Aldebaran and Antares lie in almost exactly opposite directions from our solar system. On Dec. 1, when Aldebaran is at opposition and is visible from dusk until dawn, Antares is hidden in conjunction on the far side of the sun. At the opposite time of year, May 30, Antares will be at opposition and in the sky from dusk until dawn, while Aldebaran will be hidden on far side of the sun.

To check for eventual resumption of star parties hosted by the Astronomical Society of the Desert, visit the club’s website at www.astrorx.org. Rancho Mirage Library’s Observatory is currently closed as well, although the library is open for checking out books during limited hours; visit www.ranchomiragelibrary.org/observatory.html for updates.

Wishing you clear skies!

Robert Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing informal sky watching opportunities for folks in and around Palm Springs. Robert D. Miller did graduate work in planetarium science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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