By Andy Veh, for the Redoubt Reporter
For astronomy, daylight-saving time means that the sky got dark abruptly one hour early starting Nov. 3.
Looking at the sky in the late evening around 11 p.m., prominent constellations and stars are the Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major, high in the northeast, and the Little Dipper high in the north.
Cygnus with Deneb, Lyra with Vega and Aquila with Altair are now low in the northwest. These three stars form the summer triangle. It’s perhaps comforting that in Alaska we can see this summer triangle all winter along, albeit near the horizon. Cassiopeia appears overhead, in the zenith, and Pegasus’ square/diamond is in the southwest. In the east, Gemini with Castor and Pollux, Cancer with the Beehive cluster and Leo have risen, following Orion with red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel, which are now quite high in the southeast (that’s why I chose the late evening for my description). Auriga with Capella and Taurus with Aldebaran, and the Pleiades star cluster, currently with the very bright Jupiter, appear now high in the south.
Mercury, Venus and Saturn are not visible this month because they are setting and rising at about the same time as the sun.
Jupiter rises in the east around 9 p.m. Due to its glaring brightness, you can’t miss it. Jupiter will be visible during the late evening and into dawn all month and all evening during the entire winter. This month it forms a nice triangle or triplet with Gemini’s Castor and Pollux.
The giant planet appears right above the almost-full moon Nov. 21. Although Jupiter is 40 times wider than Earth’s moon, it is also 2,000 times farther away, resulting in an apparent diameter 50 times smaller. Therefore, Earth’s moon appears large while Jupiter’s disk can only be made out in good binoculars or a small telescope. (Its own four moons, each as large as our own moon, appear as bright dots next to the planet when viewed with binoculars or a telescope.)
Mars rises in the east around 2 a.m. The third-quarter moon joins the red planet Nov. 27. Last month Mars moved right to left past Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. This month it continues its journey through the lion, moving ever farther away from Regulus when observed each week. That shows that planets indeed move — and that’s what the name planet means, a “wanderer.”
Uranus and Neptune can still be viewed somewhat low, around 25 degrees above the horizon, in the evening in the south. The best way of finding them is using a finder chart (e.g. in the February issue of Sky & Telescope, http://media.skyandtelescope.com/documents/Uranus-Neptune-2013.pdf), then to star hop with stable binoculars (I recommend propping your elbows on a car’s roof).
Uranus, especially, can be easily spotted. Move south from the two vertices on the left of Pegasus’ Great Square. The almost-full moon is near Uranus on Nov. 12 and 13. Neptune appears to the right of Uranus, and the first-quarter moon joined it Nov. 10. This description is virtually the same as it was when I last wrote about them in September, because unlike Mars and Jupiter, they move so slowly that their motion is not discernible without exact measurements. Uranus takes 84 years and Neptune 165 years to orbit the sun.
If the ecliptic (the line path on which the sun seems to move through the sky, while the planets move close to it) wasn’t so close to the horizon in Alaska’s fall and winter, we could glimpse Mercury and Saturn really close together barely above the southeastern horizon around 8 a.m. Nov. 26.
Comet ISON might rise to prominence by the end of this month. If it becomes a promising sight, I will write about it in my December column.
In last month’s column I had predicted that newspapers would announce the discovery of the 1,000th exoplanet at the end of September. However, new and confirmed discoveries apparently come in batches, so the milestone was reached three weeks later. Right now the count is at 1,028, most of them at least the size of Jupiter, and most in our galactic neighborhood, within 1,000 light years.
Andy Veh is an associate professor of physics, math and astronomy at Kenai Peninsula College.