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The Sky This Week, 2019 November 26 - December 4

Signs of the Seasons
Crescent Moon and Earthshine, 2018 January 20.
Crescent Moon and Earthshine, 2018 January 20.
HDR image made with a 3-inch f/6 Antares Sentinel refractor and a Canon EOS Rebel SL2 DSLR
from Alexandria, Virginia.

The Moon returns to the evening sky this week, waxing to her First Quarter phase on December 4th at 1:58 am Eastern Standard Time.  The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter form a bright, attractive grouping on Thanksgiving evening during the twilight hours.  Be sure to catch this beautiful show before the tryptophan kicks in.  On the following evening Luna will be just under two degrees south of Saturn.  

Thanksgiving kicks off the end-of-year holiday season, and the sky offers some interesting ties to these celebrations.   This is the time of year when the sky transitions from the sparse starfields of autumn and welcomes the bright stars of winter.   By 10:00 pm all of the stars of the Great Winter Circle have cleared the eastern horizon, promising to give us a few bright beacons to guide us through long winter nights.  By midnight on Thanksgiving night the eastern- and northernmost stars of the Circle, Aldebaran and Capella, are near the meridian, while the latter star also nears the zenith.  Capella is significant in the mythology that is associated with Thanksgiving.  The star’s name means “the little she-goat”, and represents the goat that nursed the infant Zeus.  An energetic lad, Zeus accidentally broke one of the goat’s horns, from which sprang the bounties of the harvest.  The horn is symbolic today as the Cornucopia, or “Horn of Plenty”, making it very appropriate for the season.

As we move through the holiday season we find the striding figure of Orion dominating the overnight hours at Christmastime, and on New Year’s Eve the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, crosses the meridian at local midnight, welcoming the resetting of the yearly calendar.  The sight of the bright stars of the season can be almost as colorful as the lights that adorn our neighborhoods as well.  Compare the ruddy hues of Aldebaran and Betelgeuse with the golden glow of Capella and the icy blue tint of Sirius and Rigel.  In addition to their colors, these stars brighten the sky over the year’s longest nights.  Within the bounds of the Great Winter Circle we find nine of the 25 brightest stars in the entire sky.  Enjoy them as we celebrate the season’s festivities and wind down 2019.

On Thanksgiving night we will be treated to a beautiful gathering of the planets Venus and Jupiter as well as the slender crescent Moon.  The trio will appear low in the southwest as evening twilight deepens.  This is a great opportunity to try your hand at basic astrophotography.  Follow the Moon’s progress over the next few nights.  On the 29th she will be located close to Saturn, and on successive nights begins a transit of the faint autumnal constellations.  As she passes into darker skies look for the faint glow of “Earthshine” illuminating the part of her disc that’s not in direct sunlight.

It’s not too early to think about spring, and if you’re up before dawn look to the east for the bright springtime stars Arcturus and Spica.  Between Spica and the southeast horizon you may notice a reddish “star” shining at second magnitude.  This is Mars, which will gradually work his way eastward over the course of the new year.  Mars will reach opposition in the fall, and by that time he will be one of the brightest objects in the nighttime sky.