What’s Up Above? November Stargazing


By “Astro” Mark Laurin

Used with permission.

November is a yin and yang month for stargazers in the northern hemisphere. Daylight Saving Time concludes Nov. 5th, so the sun now sets around 5:00pm. That gives us additional time (and darkness) for stargazing. The spectacular winter constellations begin to rise in the east at a more reasonable hour for observing. Yippee! That’s great yin! Now the yang. The act of stargazing, (being outside) is a burr, cold. Is having your finger, nose, and toes react with annoyance worth it? Without a doubt, the answer is “Yes!” Go ahead and put on a sweater, heavier coat and hat, and maybe gloves too, then step outside, and look up. You’ll be amazed. There are three meteor showers this month; Venus nuzzles up to a crescent Moon for the early risers; Jupiter shines big and bright all night long; and the Seven Sisters sashay to new heights in our autumn night sky. Whew. That’s a full menu of celestial delicacies to make a robust Thanksgiving dinner. And these are just the highlights. So I ask you, ‘do you need any other motivation to bundle up, step outside, and look up to the heavens this November?’ I think not.

Did I mention there are three meteor showers this month?     

Jupiter at Opposition: November 3nd   

Jupiter continues its backwards journey of retrograde motion as it passes closest to Earth on November 1st. The night of the 2nd and the morning of the 3rd, Jupiter reaches Opposition. This means Jupiter is opposite of the Sun and the Earth in between the two. The king of planets, Father Sky-God, will rise in the east as the Sun sets in the west and will be visible the entire night. There are reports that some have seen Jupiter up to an hour before sunset in the west. (They must have exceptionally good eyesight.)  Not to fret, if you miss Jupiter at Opposition, the chief god of the Roman pantheon will occupy his throne high in the November sky throughout the month. Viewing Jupiter not your thing? Bear in mind Jupiter is also the god of thunder, lighting, and storms. May I suggest you hedge your bets, and take a moment to look up and give a nod of recognition to the planet the Babylonians called Marduk?   

A Conjunction Made in Heaven. Venus, and a Waning Moon: November 9th

Get up early and look east my friends to see a vibrant Venus and an aging Moon. Get up close and personal when they pass within a mere 53.1 arcminutes between them. Another way of saying they’ll be separated by a mere .88 degrees of separation. That’s tight. In fact, if you were in Western Europe or Northern Africa you’d see a lunar occultation of Venus.  What they’ll see is Venus passing behind the Moon; disappear on its eastern limb and then reappearing on the western limb of the Moon just over an hour later. Here in North America, the pair will be visible from 2:45am MT after it rises above the eastern horizon, until they become obscured by the breaking morning Sun around 6:30am MT. But you’re not an early riser?  The dual return for an encore performance in mid-December.  And like most encores, it won’t be as dramatic and exciting as this first show, but still really cool.   

Northern Taurid Meteor Shower: Peak 11th – 12th

The Northern Taurids Meteor Shower is a can’t-miss celestial event this year. I make this proclamation for three reasons. First, this year the shower peaks one day away from the New Moon (moonlight is minimal which makes the sky darker); second, the meteor shower is viewable from sunset to sunrise (you can see the shower early in the night); and third, the shower is easy to find in the night sky. Look at the image above, and note the position of Pleiades, and the position of the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. The star of Aldebaran.      

The Northern Taurids’ shower is the result of tiny grains or bits of dust trailing behind Comet Encke, hitting, skipping, or skimming across and off the Earth’s atmosphere.

To find the radiant point of the meteor shower, look towards the eastern horizon after 7:30pm MT. You are looking for the brightest star in the east, close to the horizon, which is Aldebaran. Extend your arm, clench your fist, and put your pinky next to Aldebaran and turn your wrist up 90-degrees, so your thumb is straight up. Here is where the majority of the meteors radiate from. Remember, this area moves across the sky throughout the night. The best time to look is at midnight when the radiant point is highest in the sky. You can anticipate seeing on average 4 – 6 meteors per hour.

Leonid Meteor Shower:  Peak November 17th – 18th

The annual Leonid Meteor Shower is active from the 6th through the 18th.  The meteors radiate from within the constellation Leo. This year it is estimated there will be approximately 15 meteors per hour at its peak on the 17th – 18th. The meteor showers arise when the Earth passes through streams of debris left in the wake of comets and asteroids. Over time, the tiny debris inside the stream spreads along the entire length of the object’s orbit. Look for meteors between the hours of 11pm and 6:15am for meteors radiating slightly above the east-northeast horizon and then moving to west across the sky as night progresses.  The maximum meteors per hour is anticipated to be around 6am the morning of the 18th. Tailor made viewing for all of your early risers! 

The meteor shower is created by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle.  Every 33-years, the Leonid shower becomes a storm and puts on a spectacular show.  Then, thousands of meteors ride the night sky per hour, instead of the 10 – 15 meteors we are likely to see this time.  Astrophysics believe the debris stream the Earth will pass through this year was like the result of the meteor’s passing in 1767.  Next big outbursts? 2033, 2034, 2061 and 2099.   

The Pleiades Above: November 18th 

One of the truly spectacular celestial objects of the autumn and winter seasons is the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters, and Messier 45. It is an open star cluster located in the constellation of Taurus. Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to view the Pleiades through a telescope. The Frenchman, Charles Messier, measured the position of the cluster and identified it as M45 (the “M” is for Messier) in his 1771 catalog of 100 comet-like objects. An open cluster is a group of up to a few thousand stars that were formed inside the same giant molecular cloud and are roughly the same age. The seven brightest are known as the “Seven Sisters” and are somewhat similar in shape to Ursa Major (Big Dipper) and Ursa Minor (Little Dipper) which is why Pleiades is informally referred to as the “Mini Dipper.”  

To find the cluster, one way is to look east beginning the 10th after 6:30pm MT. When the cluster rises above the horizon, search for a clearly visible smudge on the night sky, a blurry finger print that looks like a tiny Big Dipper. If you don’t see it, wait 30-minutes for the appearance of the double star, Aldebaran, the 14th brightest star in the sky. The star’s name from ancient Arabic, means the “Follower” as indeed this star follows the Pleiades. Find Aldebaran, then extend your arm and make a fist. Turn your fist placing your thumb on Aldebaran.  About half the width of your fist, scan a tight zigzag up the eastern horizon. There’s the cluster.  During the month, the cluster will rise higher in the sky where by on the 18th the Sisters will take their rightful location in the sky, directly overhead. It’s a beautiful sight. Be there to greet the sisters when they arrive. 

Orionid Meteor Shower:  Peak November 28th

The Orionid meteor shower is active this year between November 13th and December 6th. At peak on the 28th, the Orionid are anticipated to produce around 3 meteors per hour. Not that much. Worse is this year, the Moon rests in the constellation Taurus and is one day past full as the shower’s peak and consequently spread significant interfering light across the night sky. You’ll never see the dimmer meteors as they will be washed out by moonlight. Yet, for the undaunted, the radiant point (central origination point of the meteor shower) is in the constellation Orion which becomes visible after the constellation rises above the eastern horizon around 7:30pm MT. Like the other meteor showers this November, the show lasts all night, setting when they are obscured by the next morning’s sunrise. It is anticipated that the peak of this shower is shortly after it rises in the east between 7:30pm and 8:00pm MT.

To find the radiant point for the Orionid Meteor Shower, go back and review the directions above for locating both the Northern Taurids Meteor Shower and the Pleiades star cluster. The only difference is that it is one hour later, and on a different date. How easy is that? 

Thanksgiving arrives in November and this holiday asks us to give thanks for the bounty and blessing bestowed upon us.  When you look up at the celestial sphere this month, accept the celestial bounty bestowed upon you and let the night sky surround you, enter you, and be you.  Feel the presence of the universe and allow it to assist you achieve the balance, gratitude, and acceptance we all seek. Don’t let a little chill on your nose, ears, and toes prevent you from connecting with this wonderfully expanding universe above and around us.  You’ll be thankful that you did.

Did I mention there are three meteor showers this month?

Clear skies to you, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Astro Mark

Image Credits:  In-the-Sky.org, Starry Night 8

Sources Credits: Astronomy Magazine, Wikipedia, Sky and Telescope Magazine, Space.com, and SkyatNight Magazine.