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The Sky This Week, 2014 November 12 - 18

Looking for signs of winter.
Messier 45, The Pleiades star cluster
Imaged 2013 November 30 from Great Meadow Field Event Center,
Old Tavern, Virginia.

The Moon spends the week passing through the stars of late winter and early spring adding her waning glow to the morning hours.  Last Quarter occurs on the 14th at 10:16 am Eastern Standard Time.  Look for the Moon rising with bright Jupiter shortly before midnight on the morning of the 14th.  The next morning you’ll find her perched just under five degrees south of the bright star Regulus in Leo.  By the week’s end she moves into the sparse starfields of western Virgo.

As the Moon deserts the evening sky and our first cold snap descends on Washington, we can see many harbingers of winter in the evening sky.  By 8:00 pm the stars of the Summer Triangle are hovering above the western horizon.  Most of the southern sky is dominated by what seems to be vast, empty space, dotted here and there with a few second- and third-magnitude stars, much like the few leaves that linger on the tree branches.  These stars form an otherwise obscure set of constellations that were known to the ancients as the “water signs” of the Zodiac.  Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pisces cover one quarter of the zodiacal band, but most of us in urban and suburban locations can barely see them.  Even from dark sites there are only a few handfuls of faint stars to delineate these figures, giving the sky a cold, empty appearance.  Turn to face the north, however, and a few familiar patterns call for your attention.  These are best exemplified by the W-shaped grouping that outlines Cassiopeia, the Queen, and the wishbone-shaped figure of Perseus, the Hero.  Both of these constellations lie in the plane of the Milky Way, and owners of binoculars and small telescopes can track down dozens of knots of light that resolve into star clusters.

By 10:00 pm the stars of the Great Winter Circle are above the eastern horizon, with the familiar figure of Orion the Hunter seemingly climbing one leg at a time into the night.  High in the east you’ll find the small knot of stars known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters.  Technically they are an asterism within the bounds of the constellation of Taurus, the Bull, but there is probably more lore and legend associated with these stars than any other grouping in all the heavens.  Seeing them rising during the first frosty nights of fall has always made me think of the coming winter, and they have been harbingers of fierce storms and heavy seas for mariners for millennia.  Virtually every culture that has marveled at the night sky has a story about these seven tightly grouped stars.  Even the Hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth had a name for them, “Remmirath”, or “The Netted Stars”.  The Pleiades offer the urban stargazer a pleasant sight through binoculars.  Where our unaided eyes can see six or seven cluster members, binoculars will reveal nearly two dozen.  Each increase in aperture will gather in many more; large telescopes under dark skies show hundreds of members.

Back in the early evening sky we still find ruddy Mars clinging to the southwestern horizon during the hour after the end of evening twilight.  Mars is now passing through the setting stars of Sagittarius, starting the week just two degrees north of the constellation’s brightest star Nunki.  During the week he begins to climb northward on the ecliptic, setting his sights on the faint stars of Capricornus.

Jupiter now rises by around 11:30 pm EST, but he’s still best placed for viewing in the hours before dawn.  He crosses the meridian just before sunrise, fading as Old Sol brightens the morning.  This week if you’re up early you’ll find Old Jove entertaining the waning crescent Moon.  You’ll find ample photo opportunities as the Moon and Jupiter form interesting patterns with the bright nearby star Regulus.

Early in the week you may still capture a fleeting glimpse of the elusive planet Mercury along the southeastern horizon.  He’ll be about five degrees high half an hour before sunrise early in the week, but by the weekend he’ll be lost in solar glare.

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