November 2007 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
Things are likely to get crowded around the Moon over the next decades. Along with
a proposed (though unfunded) NASA initiative to return humans to the Moon by 2020,
a flurry of activity from Asian nations may make us late comers.
The Japanese launched a lunar orbiter (called Kayuga – “princess”) in September,
and it’s already returning data and images. The Chinese have perhaps the most ambitious
plans. Their first lunar orbiter, Chang’e 1 (named for a mythical moon goddess)
was successfully launched on 24 October, as the precursor mission for an eventual
human landing. Expect more probes in this series. The Chang’e 2 program is a planned
lander, tentatively scheduled for 2012. Chang’e 3 will return samples from the lunar
surface beginning in 2017. Note the classic “5 year plan” structure. The Chinese
have already demonstrated twice their ability to send humans into orbit, and are
expected to extend their crewed capability to include orbiting humans around the
Moon in the same basic spacecraft. India is not to be left out of the mix, either.
Their first lunar orbiter, dubbed Chadrayaan 1, is scheduled for launch next April,
and they are also talking about developing the ability to send humans into space.
Our next planned lunar probe is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, tentatively to
be launched in October 2008. Remember when it used to be common to say something
like, “If we can put men on the Moon, why can’t we … ?” The truth is, we no longer
have that capability, and it will take us and the other space faring nations some
decades to reclaim what we were able to do in the sixties and early seventies.
Lunar phases for November: Last Quarter on the 1st, at 5:18 pm (EDT). We switch
to standard time – “fall back” – on the 4th, so the rest of these times are EST:
New Moon on the 9th, at 6:03 pm; First Quarter on the 17th, at 5:33 pm; Full Moon
on the 24th, at 9:30 am.
Predawn planet watchers will have by far their best chances this month, while evening
observers will have to wait many hours after sunset before seeing anything other
than Jupiter. Early in the month, you’ll be able to see 4 planets above the horizon
as the Sun nears the horizon. Mercury rises just under an hour before sunrise –
look east southeast to see it hanging about 14 degrees above the horizon as twilight
fades, next to the bright star Spica. Mercury is the one on the left. It joins Venus,
brilliant to the southeast at about 42 degrees, about a hand’s span below Saturn
at 56 degrees. (Don’t confuse Saturn with the star Regulus, which will be about
5 degrees higher. Shifting to the west southwest, that bright red “star” is Mars.
As the orbital ballet continues, Venus and Mercury are both around and ahead of
our orbital position, so they get closer to the Sun in the sky as the month moves
on. My the end of November, look for both to be lower at sunrise – Mercury at 7
degrees, and Venus now at 37 degrees, and they’ve both shifted a bit further south
along the horizon as we approach the winter solstice in December. Venus will finish
the month next to Spica. We’re moving faster than Saturn, so it will climb higher
– it will be about 60 degrees above the southern horizon by month’s end. Similarly,
we’re passing Mars which will be about 38 degrees above the western horizon at sunrise,
below the bright stars Castor and Pollux.
Early evening planet watchers will have only Jupiter, and it emerges from sunset’s
twilight low to the southwest – about 20 degrees above the horizon, and getting
lower as the month passes.
About three hours after sunset at midmonth, the direction towards zenith is remarkably
empty of bright stars. The Milky Way arcs from east northeast to west southwest,
with a distinct bulge toward the northwest. Low to the south, about 23 degrees above
the horizon, lies the very interesting bright star Fomelhaut. This is one of the
original stars designated by the Greek astronomer Aristarchus as being of “first
magnitude,” i.e. among the brightest he could see with the naked eye. The name comes
from Arabic (fum al-hawt), and can be translated as “the mouth of the fish.” Modern
pronunciation has us usually calling it “fo-me-low,” though the Arabic transliteration
suggests that it should be pronounced closer to the way it’s spelled. This star
is very young (only about 250-300 million years), and lies about 200 light years
from Earth. It’s much brighter than the Sun (about 15 times more luminous), and
almost 2.5 times as massive. Because of its greater mass and luminosity, this star
will live only another billion years or so, compared to the 5 billion more years
we expect the Sun to survive.
Andromeda lies to the east of zenith – we’ve mentioned many times that the Andromeda
Galaxy is the most distant object which can be seen without a telescope. Clear winter
nights are ideal for viewing with or without binoculars, especially when the Moon
is not interfering. Lower to the east, we see the Pleiades about 30 degrees above
the horizon, harbingers that the winter constellations are rising earlier and earlier.
West northwest from zenith we see bright Deneb at 60 and Vega at 38 degrees, joined
to the west southwest by Altair to form the “summer triangle.” These were high overhead
through the summer months, and we now bid them farewell into the winter.
For your own monthly star chart, you can direct your web browser to
http://www.skymaps.com. You will find extensive descriptions of what's worth
looking for, and you can download and print a single copy for your personal use.