Stargazing in the November Skies

by Cam Wipper, CFHT remote observer

What You Need: Just your eyes! Everything in this guide can be seen with nothing more than your very own eyes. No special equipment required.

Where To Go: We here on the Big Island are blessed with some of the greatest night skies on Earth. You can find many of the targets listed here from your own backyard. Of course, if you live in Waimea, Hilo or Kailua, the lights of your town can make fainter objects more difficult to see. The best locations are those far from light sources. Some of my favourite locations are Pu’u Huluhulu off of Saddle Road (across from the Maunakea Access Road), along Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (remember: there is no entrance fee after 8pm— perfect for stargazers) and along Mana Road on the slopes of Maunakea. Surprisingly, the summit of Maunakea, though unbeatable for telescopes, is not the best site for human observers. Due to the thinness of the air, and resultant dearth of oxygen, at the altitude of the summit, human night vision becomes far less efficient than at altitudes closer to sea level. For this reason, it is best to stargaze no higher than 10,000 feet (3000 m). The Maunakea Visitor Information Station is an example of a site located near this elevation.

Phases of the moon for November 2016
Phases of the moon for November 2016

What To Look For: In last month’s issue we talked about Supermoons; as the October full moon was the first of three Supermoons this fall. The full moon this month is also a Supermoon—and not just any Supermoon. The Supermoon of November 14th is the biggest (the ‘super-est?’) Supermoon in almost 70 years! The last time the Moon was this close to Earth during the full phase was in 1948. The result of this is that the Moon will appear almost 14% larger and nearly 30% brighter than when the Moon is at its smallest and dimmest. The Moon will be so large and bright, because the exact time of full illumination occurs at 3:52am HST, which is only 2 hours from when the Moon’s reaches its closest approach to Earth—a position known as perigee. The next Moon to be this ‘Super’ won’t occur until November 2034!

In addition to our Supermoon, we have two meteor showers this month. The first of these is the Taurids. This shower will peak on the nights of November 4th and 5th will have an hourly peak of 5-10 meteors per hour. Unusually, this shower is caused by two separate debris streams: Asteriod 2004 TG10 and Comet 2P Encke are jointly responsible for this shower. The best time to view this shower will be after the Moon sets around midnight. Look towards Taurus—the Great Bull standing between Orion and the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades star cluster.

Sunrise and sunset times for Waimea.
Sunrise and sunset times for Waimea.

Our second shower is the Leonids, which peaks on the nights of November 16th and 17th. The Moon will only be a couple nights from it’s historic Supermoon appearance on November 14th, and it will still be very bright. This has the unfortunate effect of washing out all but the brightest meteors of this shower. Still, with a peak hourly rate of ~15 meteors per hour, it should still be possible to catch some nice ones. As the name suggests, the meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Leo, but, as always, meteors can appear in any part of the sky.

This shower has in the past been much more impressive than it will be this year. Every 33 years it produces a meteor storm—a mega-shower where hundreds or thousands of meteors fall per hour. The most famous occurrence was in 1833, when up to 100,000 meteors fell per hour at the peak—a staggering 25 per second!

As for our planets: In the early part of the month, both Venus and Saturn will be together in the low in the western sky just after sunset. Look for this pair of planets to chase the Sun into the horizon. As the month goes on, Venus and Saturn will diverge, with Saturn slowly drifting into the Sun and out of view. Venus will continue to sit high in the western sky, remaining visible as late as
8:00pm at the end of the month.

Not to be outdone, we also have the Red Planet visible. Mars can be found high in the western sky. It is slowly setting, but it will be visible as late as 10:00pm all month.

Finally, we have Jupiter. This giant planet does not appear until 4:00am, so it’s only for the early risers. If you are up before the Sun, look low in the eastern sky. On the nights of November 24th and 25th, the waning crescent Moon will join Jupiter in the early morning sky.

Moving on the stars: With the winter sky now in full view, we have a number of beautiful constellations to find. We’ll start in the north with the Little Dipper. Visible all night, the Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor—the Little Bear—is rather dim. Far less obvious than it’s larger brother, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper is nevertheless very important: it contains the star Polaris. Also known as the North Star, Polaris is the star at the very end of the Little Dipper’s handle. As this star is located just about at the Earth’s axis of rotation, Polaris never appears to move. The Little Dipper, and indeed the entire sky, simply spins around it. Polaris is also very important for navigation. Because of it’s location, one can use it to locate the direction North. Additionally, the latitude of one’s location on Earth can be determined by the North Star. This can be done by approximating the elevation of the North Star above the northern horizon. This elevation (in degrees) is the same as the latitude of your location! For example in Hawaii, the North Star is about 20 degrees above the horizon. Our islands are between 18 and 22 degrees North in latitude.

Around 8:30pm, Taurus the Bull appears in the east. Recall, that this is the apparent source of our early month Taurid Meteor Shower. Taurus contains the bright red star, Aldebaran, often called the “Eye of the Bull”.

Shortly after Taurus appears, we have one of the most famous constellations in the sky: Orion. The famous Belt of Orion is one of the easiest night sky features to find. Look for a vertical row of three bright stars almost due east. To the north of them you will find Betelgeuse, a huge red supergiant star nearing the end of it’s life. To the south, you will see Rigel, a blue-white supergiant, estimated to be around 200,000 times more luminous than the Sun. These two stars are the ninth- and seventh-brightest stars in the night sky respectively.

Although, nearby in the sky, Taurus and Orion are not friends. Greek mythology describes Taurus and Orion as fighting in the sky, with Taurus defending the Seven Sisters from Orion’s rather lustful advances.

The Great Bailer of Makali'i
The Great Bailer of Makali’i

These sisters, in reality a stunning group of stars known as an Open Cluster, can be found as well. They are more commonly known as the Pleiades, and are positioned just above Taurus. A quick way to find them is to locate Betelgeuse. Then trace a line in the sky to connect Betelgeuse with Aldebaran. Finally continue that line past Aldebaran, and you will come to the Pleiades.

The Pleiades are well known across the Northern Hemisphere for their beauty and cultures around the world have their names for the group. In Hawaii, they are known as Makali’i, and they are mentioned several times in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian Creation Chant, including on the fifth line of very first verse.

In Japan they are known as Subaru, a name which graces not only a successful automobile manufacturer (now you know my their logo are stars!), but also a telescope on Maunakea, which as you may guess, is owned by Japan.

Finally, we have the great legend of Perseus and Andromeda, playing out in the skies above our heads. The characters of this legend, the hero Perseus, the princess Andromeda, the king Cepheus, the queen Cassiopeia, the winged-horse Pegasus and the great monster Cetus can all be found in the sky tonight. The easiest of these characters to find are Pegasus and Cassiopeia. Pegasus most recognizable feature is the ‘Great Square’, as asterism of four stars which can be found in the east in the early evening, rising as the night goes on. Just to the north, we can see the characteristic ‘W’ shape of Cassiopeia.

Many of these characters are visible as soon as the Sun sets. Perseus, the last to appear, is visible in east by 7:30pm.

With that, I wish you clear skies and happy stargazing!

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