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The Sky This Week, 2014 November 4 - 11

Busy beavers and changing seasons
MoonMosaic_141104_02small.jpg
Waxing toward the Beaver Moon
Lunar mosaic imaged with USNO's 30.5-cm (12-inch) f/15 Clark/Saegmüller refractor
2014 November 4, 00:15 - 00:20 UT

The Moon brightens the evening skies this week, waxing through the full phase as she climbs northward along the ecliptic to join winter’s rising constellations.  Full Moon occurs on the 6th at 5:23 pm Eastern Standard Time.  November’s Full Moon is popularly known as the Beaver Moon or Frosty Moon, both of which describe phenomena frequently seen at this time of the year.  This is generally the month when we see our first killing frost, and it is also a time of heightened activity for beavers as they work to shore up their dams and lay in food stocks to survive the coming winter.  Luna forms an attractive triangle with the orange-tinted star Aldebaran and the Pleiades star cluster on the evening of the 7th.  Over the next couple of nights she drifts through the heart of the Great Winter Circle.  On the 10th she may be found just east of the second-magnitude star Alhena in the constellation of Gemini.

The change back to Standard Time brings big changes to our skies each fall.  I happen to particularly notice this change in the mornings and late evenings.  I’ve never been a “morning person”, so getting up well before dawn has always been a struggle.  Now that we’re back on Standard Time, however, I typically rise just before the Sun to a brightening sky, which makes the process a little less painful.  The evening hours, however, are a bit more of a shock.  All of a sudden, it seems, the winter stars are here, and I now see Orion rising in the southeastern sky where just last week I saw the emptiness of the autumnal constellations.  I no longer have the Summer Triangle to look at after dinner, and the summer Milky Way is now vanishing during the prime observing hours. 

However, in between the passing stars of summer and the rising stars of winter, there are sights to captivate the patient skywatcher.  Cooler nights generally bring clearer skies, and despite the season’s paucity of bright stars, the fall’s best sights are in prime position to enjoy.  The most easily recognized constellation at this time lies just to the north east of the zenith; it’s a group of five stars that form a “W”-shaped figure.  This is the constellation of Cassiopeia, who, along with her husband Cepheus, daughter Andromeda, a sea-monster named Cetus, and the hero Perseus and his fantastic flying horse Pegasus, act out one of the heavens’ oldest legends.  All of these characters are represented in the sky, but of them all Cassiopeia is the easiest to spot on a Moon-washed night.  Cassiopeia is a great place to prowl for Milky Way star clusters with binoculars and telescopes once the Moon leaves the vicinity.  If you look just south of the zenith at 9:00 pm you’ll see a large square made up of second-magnitude stars straddling the meridian.  This is the “Great Square” of Pegasus, an asterism that serves as a convenient guidepost to other constellations nearby.  The Great Square is also a great place to test the clarity and darkness of your observing site.  There are many faint stars within the square’s confines.  Most suburban skywatchers are lucky to see two stars near the northwest corner, but travel far from city lights on a moonless night and you may spot over a dozen!

Standard Time has shifted the viewing time for Mars into the very early evening.  He’s still visible low in the southwestern sky after sunset, but the best time to look for him is now around 6:00 pm.  This week he continues his eastward trek through the stars of the tea-pot asterism of Sagittarius, but if you wait until after dinner to see him you’ll be too late.  He now sets shortly after 8:00 pm.

Conversely, giant Jupiter gets a boost from Standard Time, and he now rises well before midnight.  The best time to see him is still before dawn, so you’ll need to rise at around 5:00 am to see him against a dark background sky, but this is usually when the atmosphere is very still, offering a great view of Old Jove through the telescope.  Jupiter’s Galilean moons will be putting on a good show for us this year since the Sun appears to pass through Jupiter’s orbital plane.  This will set up a series of mutual eclipses and occultations between the four bright moons throughout the coming apparition.

Finally, early risers have a great opportunity to see the elusive planet Mercury in the east as morning twilight begins to gather.  Mercury reaches greatest elongation from the Sun on the 1st and is now in the last week of his best morning apparition for the year.  You will find him in the company of the first-magnitude star Spica over the first few mornings of the week.  Mercury will appear brighter and a bit redder than the star.  The two slowly part company as the week passes.

 

 

 

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