To help you learn about the southern night sky, Sydney Observatory provides a guide and a sky map or chart each month. This month’s guide is presented by Melissa Hulbert, Sydney Observatory’s Astronomy Programs Coordinator.
In the November sky guide, as well as showing us where to find the constellations Pegasus, Orion and Taurus, and the star clusters, Hyades and Pleiades, Melissa tells us the best times to see the planets Mercury, Mars, Venus and Jupiter.
See The Sky Chart
We provide a November 2018 night sky chart (PDF) which shows the stars, constellations and planets visible in the night sky from anywhere in Australia. To view PDF star charts you will need to download and install Adobe Acrobat Reader if it’s not on your computer already.
Read The Guide
Hello and welcome to the night sky for November. My name is Melissa Hulbert and I’m the Astronomy Programs Coordinator at Sydney Observatory.
Armed with your sky map and a small torch with some red cellophane covering it, find a nice dark place away from the glare of the street lights and make sure you know your cardinal directions – that’s north, south, east and west. Remember that the Sun rises in the east, moves through the northern sky during the day and sets in the west or a small compass will also point you in the right direction. Pick a comfortable spot either on a rug or a deck chair that you can lay back in. Wait about 5-10 minutes and allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness.
Look towards the north. High in the northern sky is Pegasus, the winged horse from mythology, probably with its origins in both Mesopotamian and Etruscan starlore. Pegasus was said to have been born from the blood of Medusa (the Gorgon) after she was slain by Perseus from Greek mythology.
He is also associated with poetic inspiration in Greek mythology with a fountain that was sacred to the Nine Muses which was created when he stamped his hoof on Mount Helicon. Pegasus was principally the steed of Bellerophon and in a dream Athene appeared to Bellerophon with a golden bridle and advised him to ride Pegasus. However, some legends say that Perseus rode the winged horse when rescuing Andromeda.
Pegasus is easy to find, with the best-known feature of this constellation the aptly named ‘Great Square of Pegasus’. It is rather large at over 15 degrees in width and 13 degrees in height, but despite its size there are relatively few bright naked-eye stars within the Square. Working out degrees in the sky is quite easy. Hold your arm out towards the sky and make a fist. From one side of your fist to the other, this is 10 degrees. Hold your other arm out and spread your hand as wide as you comfortably can (so the opposite of a fist), from your little finger to your thumb is 20 degrees. Put your hands side-by-side and you now have 30 degrees. This does work for everyone, as your arm length is proportional to your hand size.
Four stars outline the Square and in the past all four were a part of the constellation, however delta Pegasi is now known as Alpha Andromedae. This star was also known as Sirrah meaning ‘navel’ and marked the navel of the horse. Pegasus is the right way up for us, so we see the neck and head of the horse stretching towards the west and what appears to be his back legs towards the north-east. One interesting object is M15 or NGC 7078, a magnitude 6 globular cluster, easily visible in binoculars and small telescopes. Medium to large apertures will resolve some of the outer regions of this cluster and a dense core. M15 lies about 33,000 light years away.
Remember I mentioned the horse’s rear legs earlier? Let’s go back to those. The legs are part of the constellation Andromeda, the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia in Greek mythology. If you are away from city lights then look carefully at this area of the sky. You might see an elongated fuzzy patch of light with your unaided eye. This is the Andromeda Galaxy and is the most distant object visible to the unaided eye, lying about 2.4 million light years from us, though recent data from the Hipparcos satellite has suggested that this distance might be closer to 3 million light years. While a fascinating sight with just your eyes, if you have binoculars or a small telescope then a most amazing sight awaits you – the dark dust lanes of the spiral arms, a bright core, and if you are lucky you might pick up one or both of its companion galaxies.
To the east and slightly south of Pegasus is Cetus, the fourth largest constellation in the sky. Cetus has been depicted as a variety of animals but is generally depicted as a sea-monster or dragon-fish but some refer to it as merely a great whale.
Cetus is one of the most ancient constellations in the sky as it was Ptolemy who originally assigned 22 stars to this constellation. It contains a jewel box of coloured stars for both telescope and binocular users alike.
South of Cetus you will see the brilliant star Achernar, which means ‘the river’s end’ as it marks the end of the river, Eridanus.
Follow Eridanus towards the east and there rising in the sky is our familiar signpost of summer skies – Orion, the Hunter. In Greek mythology Orion was a hunter of great skill and boasted that he could kill all living animals. Gaea the Earth goddess was alarmed by his statement and fearing for all the animals on Earth she sent a scorpion to kill him. Orion was stung on the shoulder but was revived and placed in the stars along with the scorpion. This entire myth is played out in the stars each year. As Scorpius the Scorpion rises in the east, Orion sets in the west, defeated. When Scorpius sets in the west the healer Ophiuchus crushes the Scorpion into the Earth and revives Orion so he can rise in the east again. Orion appears in many cultures, even the ancient Egyptians saw Orion as Osiris, god of the underworld and of regeneration.
Note that the star map is designed for 8:30pm (ADST) so Orion is just below the east horizon at this time.
If you’re having difficultly picking out the Hunter then look for ‘the Saucepan’. This is a familiar group of stars for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere and is Orion’s belt and sword. Orion is on his side as he rises above the eastern horizon.
The middle point of light in the handle of ‘the Saucepan’ (or the sword) is the famous Orion Nebula or M42. It is one of late spring’s most magnificent sights and will keep observers using binoculars or a telescope enthralled as you follow the swirls and loops of gas and dust in this active stellar nursery. Stars are forming out of the gas in this nebula which stretches about 20 light years in diameter and is 1,500 light years away.
To the south of ‘the Saucepan’ you should see the red supergiant star Betelgeuse, which is 500 times larger than our own star, the Sun. Or, if we were to place Betelgeuse where our Sun is, at the centre of our Solar System, then the edge of the star would be near Jupiter’s orbit. Betelgeuse is the shoulder or armpit of Orion and is about 427 light years away. To the north of ‘the Saucepan’ and diagonally opposite Betelgeuse is a brilliant white star, Rigel, one of Orion’s knees. Rigel is a blue-white supergiant star that shines 60,000 times brighter than our own Sun. Rigel also has a small companion star which is best seen through a telescope though if seeing conditions are not the best, small telescopes will struggle to see the companion through the glare of Rigel.
Let’s return to the belt of Orion and follow its line to the west where we come to the back of a sideways ‘V’. This ‘V’ is the head of Taurus the bull and appears to be charging at Orion. Like Cetus, Taurus is one of the most ancient constellations in our skies and like Orion is also steeped in Greek mythology. It is said to represent the bull Zeus changed into to carry Princess Europa off to Crete.
Back to the ‘V’ which is part of a large open star cluster visible in binoculars called the Hyades. One of Taurus’ eyes is an orange giant star called Aldebaran which means ‘the follower’. It follows the Pleiades, a wonderful open star cluster that can be seen with your eyes to the north west of the ’V’. The Pleiades are known as the seven sisters as seven stars are readily seen with your eyes, but away from city lights, up to 13 can be seen with the unaided eye. The whole cluster contains about 100 stars and binoculars are the best way to view this marvelous object.
Another of Messier’s objects, M1 is also in Taurus. M1 is best seen in telescopes and is known as the Crab Nebula, but is in fact the remnant of a star that exploded as a supernova on July 4 1054AD. How can we be so precise with this date?
Chinese astronomers kept very accurate records of the night sky and recorded the position of a ‘new star’ on their star maps on this date, the exact position in which we now find the Crab Nebula. Although the Crab Nebula is 7,000 light years away, the supernova was brighter than the planet Venus for weeks before it faded from view after almost two years. Even today, the nebula is still expanding at a rate of more than 5 million kilometres per hour. It emits radiation in all wavelengths from gamma rays to x-rays, UV, optical and infrared radiation and radio waves. It is exceptionally bright for a supernova remnant. The reason for this is its central pulsar energizes it.
Careful studies of the Crab Nebula revealed a pulsar near the centre, which emitted at a rate of 30 pulses per second. Additional observations have shown that the pulse rate is slowing down. During the next 1,000 years the pulse rate will fall to half its present value.
Time to turn and look towards the south. Can you see our familiar signpost of the Southern Cross and Pointers? Look low, close to the south horizon and there they are. In late spring these constellations are low in our evening skies but by early morning, they are rising again to the positions we are familiar with.
However, in their place are two cloud-like objects, a large one and a small one (you will need to be away from city lights to see them). These are the Magellanic Clouds, named after the explorer Ferdinand Magellan. They are the two satellite galaxies of our own Milky Way. The larger of the two is in the constellation Dorado, the goldfish. In 1987, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) was the site of the first supernova, visible to the unaided eye since 1604 (which was observed by the astronomer Johannes Kepler). This supernova was named SN (for supernova) 1987A.
The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is in the constellation Tucana, the Toucan. Sitting just beside the cloud is 47 Tuc or NGC 104 a fine globular cluster, second only to Omega Centauri. It is a fuzzy object which at 4th magnitude can be easily seen with the unaided eye, away from city lights. In ancient times it was thought to be a star and given a stellar designation. 47 Tuc has the same apparent size as the Moon and has a tightly packed core. Telescopes with apertures of 100mm or greater are required to even begin to resolve this globular. It is 16,000 light years away, making it one of the closest globulars to Earth.
As I’ve mentioned, some of the constellations are just below the east horizon. Look for the December 2017 star map on our website which will show these constellations higher or the equivalent of later in the November evening.
What else can we look forward to seeing in the sky in November 2018?
At the start of the month after sunset, Jupiter is low in the western sky and this first half of the month is the final chance to catch a glimpse of the largest planet in our Solar System before it becomes lost in the Sun’s glare. Jupiter will return to the morning sky in December. On the 9th, the waxing crescent Moon will be above and to the west (right) of the Jovian Giant.
Mercury also joins Jupiter in the western sky after sunset, about 5 degrees above the Jovian planet, and reaches its greatest elongation (23°) east of the Sun on the 7th, providing observers with a good opportunity to view this often elusive planet. Mercury will be easy to spot between 8th to the 11th as it is 2° to the west (right) of the bright star Antares, with Mercury being the brighter of the two. Mercury will rapidly start to make its way toward the horizon, reaching inferior conjunction (it will be between the Earth and Sun) on the 27th after which it will reappear as a morning object next month. On the 9th, the waxing crescent Moon is below and to the west (right) of Mercury and on the 10th it will be above and to the west (right).
Shining brightly, high overhead in the northwestern sky after sunset is the red planet, Mars. The Red Planet will spend about the first third of the month in the constellation Capricornus before moving into Aquarius for the remainder of the month. On the 16th, the first quarter Moon is to the east (right) and slightly above Mars. Mars has dropped in size and brightness since its close encounter at the end of July and is now more a target for imagers than observers.
All of you early-birds have not been forgotten as November sees Venus returning to the eastern twilight sky before sunrise. On the morning of the 15th Venus will be 1.2° from Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Though this will be difficult to see and caution must be taken as it occurs just prior to sunrise with the eastern horizon quickly brightening. On the 5th, the waning crescent Moon is to the left (or east) of Spica and Venus and on the 6th the Moon is close to the horizon, below and left (or east) of the pair.
I do have one wildcard for you all this month which is the Northern Taurids meteor shower which is linked to the periodic comet 2P/Encke. When comets pass close to the Sun they leave a trail of small particles and dust behind. When the Earth passes through this trail we see lots of meteors appearing to come from one area of the sky. This is called the radiant and each shower is named after the constellation or bright star near which the radiant appears. In this case it’s the constellation Taurus and there are actually two radiants nearly 10° apart, both showing the same amount of activity. They are known as the Southern and Northern Taurids. The best time to observe this meteor shower is from late evening to the early morning. The Northern Taurids are active from the 20th October to the 10th of December, with the peak expected on the morning of the 12th. The shower is known for its bright, slow moving (~29km/s) meteors. This year’s predictions suggest an hourly rate of 5 meteors during the peak however from time to time Jupiter’s orbit brings it close to the trail of the comet and the Jovian Giant’s gravity nudges more of the particles towards Earth. While not predicted to occur this year, latest modelling suggests that 2019 will see an outburst of activity. Keep in mind that this is just a prediction and that activity can vary from year to year and if the shower does turn out to be active this year, and with no moonlight to interfere with observations (New Moon is on the 8th), it is certainly worth hopping out of bed for!
I leave you now with a quote from Brian Greene, Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University and best known for his work in superstring theory: “I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly – or ever – gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.”
Wishing you clear skies and see you next month under the stars!
If you have enjoyed this November sky guide and think you might want to regularly check out what’s in the night sky, why not purchase a copy of Sydney Observatory’s book the ‘Australasian Sky Guide’. It not only contains detailed monthly sky guides, but is packed with astronomical information including rise and set times for the Sun, Moon and planets, tides and a detailed look at our Solar System and upcoming astronomical events. Only $17.00 from Sydney Observatory and Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences shops or you can purchase it online (additional costs apply).
This has been Melissa Hulbert from Sydney Observatory with the November monthly sky guide.