Action packed November stargazing
The colder and longer Marshall nights of November are a stargazer’s paradise! The bright winter constellations are on the rise, but the best show this November is actually in the daytime. On Nov. 11 there’s going to be a transit of the planet Mercury across the face of the sun. With the proper equipment you can safely watch the silhouette of Mercury cross in front of the sun. Without a doubt this is a rare event that only happens a little over a dozen times a century, although we’ve been fortunate because this will be the third transit in the last 15 years. It will be our last one until 2032.
The planets in our solar system orbit the sun in nearly the same plane, but not exactly. For a transit of Mercury to happen, the Earth and Mercury literally have to be in the right place at the right time. For nearly 5.5 hours Mercury will appear as a small dot crossing the disk of the sun from east to west, but it will only be visible in South America, most of North America, and the western tip of Africa. In the United States only about the eastern third of the contiguous 48 states will be able to witness the entire transit. In the rest of the U.S. the transit will begin before local sunrise. The best thing to do is check the calendar section of your Sky Guide app to get your local information, as well as suggestions as to how to safely view it. Never ever, ever view the sun directly with or without a telescope. Irreversible eye damage or even permanent blindness can result.
In the early evening skies the planets Jupiter and Saturn will be available and in late November Venus will be joining them. Jupiter’s been in the evening skies since late spring, but this will be the last month that you can get a really get a good look at it in the evening. It’s the brightest star-like object in the sky, starting the evening in the low southwest. Even though it’s a lot farther away than it was in the spring it’s still a fine target for even small telescopes. You can easily resolve the disk of the huge planet, and you may even see Jupiter’s cloud bands. For sure you’ll see up to four of Jupiter’s largest moons that resemble tiny stars on either side of the planet. Just make sure you get your telescope time in with Jupiter as early in the month as you can before it gets too close to the horizon and the blurring effects of the thicker layer of Earth’s atmosphere.
Toward the end of the month when Jupiter is only available in the low southwest twilight sky it will be joined by the even brighter Venus. On the 23-25th the two bright planets will be at their closest approach to each other at less than two degrees apart. You should be able to get both planets in the same field of view with binoculars or a small telescope at low magnification. On Nov. 28, the crescent moon will join Venus and Jupiter for an absolutely lovely conjunction that you don’t want to miss!
Saturn also begins November in the low southwest evening sky, a little higher in the sky to the upper left of Jupiter. You will experience the same blurring effects of our atmosphere close to the horizon, but even with a small telescope you should easily see its ring system and if the air is clear enough, you might also see some of its moons that resemble tiny stars. On the evenings of Nov. 1 and 2 the new crescent moon will be fairly close by to Saturn, but on the 29th the thin crescent moon will be just to the lower left of Saturn in a very tight celestial hug!
The annual Leonid meteor shower will be peaking on the morning of Nov. 18 and normally it’s a pretty good meteor show. Unfortunately this year the last quarter moon is going to fill the sky with enough light to wash out all but the brightest meteors. The Northern Taurids meteor shower peaks on the morning of Nov. 13, but that’s really going to take a beating visually with a nearly full moon.
Believe it or not there’s still some summer constellations visible in the western sky. Among the brighter ones are Cygnus the Swan, Lyra the Harp, and Aquila the Eagle. We won’t see them for too much longer because as our Earth orbits the sun we’re turning away from that part of space.
In the south-southeastern sky is one of the prime autumn constellations, Pegasus the Winged Horse, with Andromeda the Princess tagging along. Turn around and face north and you’ll see old friends like the Big Dipper, barely above the horizon, with the Little Dipper hanging by its handle higher in the northern sky. Cassiopeia the Queen, the constellation that looks like a giant sideways W, is proudly showing off her stuff in the high northeast sky.
In the eastern skies, especially in the last half of November, the first of the winter constellations are making their debut. The constellation Taurus the Bull that resembles a little arrow pointing to the right is on the rise. Just above it is the bright star cluster the Pleiades, otherwise known as the Seven Little Sisters. In the northeast the bright star Capella is on the rise, part of the constellation Auriga the Charioteer, and by 9 p.m. the great constellation Orion the Hunter emerges above the eastern horizon.
Enjoy the star-filled longer nights of November!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.