The Sky This Week, November 18 – 25, 2014 !

The Sky This Week, 2014 November 18 – 25

A Cornucopia of sky delights.
NGC 869 & 884, the Perseus Double Cluster
Imaged 2013 August 15 at Fishers Island, New York
80-mm (3.1-inch) f/6 Antares Sentinel refractor with Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR

The Moon may be found as a thin waning crescent in the pre-dawn sky as the week opens and returns to the evening sky as a waxing crescent as it ends.  New Moon occurs on the 22nd at 7:32 am Eastern Standard Time.  If you’re up early on the 19th you’ll see Luna just three degrees northwest of the bright star Spica.  On the evening of the 25th you’ll find the Moon in the southwestern sky northeast of ruddy Mars

The absence of the Moon finds us in the middle of the November observing campaign for the international “Globe At Night” campaign.  This global “citizen science” effort is dedicated to determining the effects of light pollution around the world, and it is very simple for anyone to participate.  This month the effort focuses on the constellation of Perseus, the Hero, which may be found high in the northeastern sky at around 9:00 pm.  If you face north at his time you’ll see the “W”-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia on the meridian; she’ll actually look a bit more like an “M”.  Perseus occupies the space just to the right of Cassiopeia and is centered on the second-magnitude star Mirfak.  I think of Perseus as resembling the “winner’s” portion of a wishbone, which seems quite appropriate for this time of year.  The top of the wishbone points back toward Cassiopeia, while the longer tine follows a gentle arc that will lead you to the Pleiades.  The shorter, upper tine ends in a most unusual star, Algol.  Its name derives from ancient Persian and means “the head of the demon”, and it represents an eye on the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa that Perseus dispatched in one of his many adventures.  The star is unusual in that its apparent brightness dims by over one magnitude every 2.87 days, as if it was slowly winking at us.  This was noticed by the classical Arab astronomers in the first millennium, who thus gave it a very descriptive name.  You should have little trouble in finding Mirfak and Algol from suburban skies, although Algol may be difficult when it is at a minimum.  To make a measurement for Globe At Night, compare your view to the online charts on the project’s website and add your data to the growing knowledge base.

Just below Perseus you’ll find a bright star that has a very distinctive golden tint.  This is Capella, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga the Charioteer.  Capella’s name is derived from the Latin word for “goat”, and it represents Amalthea, the she-goat who nursed the infant Zeus as he was hidden from his father Cronus.  In one legend the young Zeus accidentally broke off one of the goat’s horns which then became the source of boundless nourishment, the Cornucopia.  Fittingly in our modern traditions Capella is close to the meridian at midnight when we take the time to celebrate the bounty and nourishment in our lives with the Thanksgiving feast.

The stars between Cassiopeia and Auriga lie in the foreground of the winter Milky Way, which you can faintly see from dark locations away from city lights.  This is a great area of the sky to patrol with binoculars; several bright star clusters lurk among the wafts of light.  The famous Perseus Double Cluster lies between the top of the Perseus “wishbone” and Cassiopeia and can be glimpsed on very clear nights from suburban back yards.  Three bright clusters may be found within the bounds of Auriga as well.  Try to spot them while the Moon is absent from the sky.

The early evening still finds ruddy Mars in the southwestern sky, still chugging eastward ahead of the Sun.  The red planet is now moving into the sparsely populated constellation of Capricornus and will be the brightest object in this part of the sky until he gets a visit from the Moon at the end of the week.  You will now need a large telescope and exceptionally steady air to see much of any details in his tiny pink-hued disc.

Jupiter now rises just before 11:00 pm EST, gradually making his way into the evening sky.  The best time to observe him, though, is still just before dawn when he crossed the meridian.  This is also the time of day when the atmosphere tends to be in its steadiest state, so telescopic detail can be surprisingly good.  To make sure you get the best possible view, though, leave your telescope out overnight so it can reach equilibrium with the air.  Removing your scope from the warmth of the house to the chill of the morning air will ruin your planned observations.


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