The Evening Sky in November 2015
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The Evening Sky in November 2015
The brightest stars are in the eastern sky. Midway up the southeast sky is Canopus, the second brightest star. Sirius, the brightest star, rises in the later evening at the beginning of the month. It is in the sky at dusk by month's end, twinkling like a diamond as the air disperses its light.
Left of Sirius is the constellation of Orion, with 'The Pot' at its centre. Rigel, a bluish supergiant star, is directly above the line of three stars; Betelgeuse, a red-giant star, is straight below. Left again is orange Aldebaran. It is at one tip of a triangular group called the Hyades cluster. The Hyades and Aldebaran make the upside down face of Taurus the bull. Still further left is the Pleiades or Matariki star cluster, also called the Seven Sisters, Subaru and many other names. Six stars are visible to the eye; dozens are seen in binoculars. The cluster is 440 light years away and around 70 million years old.
Sirius is the brightest star both because it is relatively close, nine light years* away. Seen up close it would be 23 times brighter than the sun. By contrast, Canopus is 300 light years away and 13 000 times brighter than the sun.
Saturn is the only naked-eye planet in the evening sky. It sets in the southwest two hours after the sun at the beginning of the month. It looks like a medium-bright creamy-white star directly below orange Antares, the brightest star in the Scorpion. Because it is low in the sky it will look rather fuzzy in a telescope. By mid-month it is disappearing in the dusk.
The Milky Way is low in the sky, visible around the horizon from the northwest, through south into the eastern sky. The broadest, brightest part is in Sagittarius, to the right of the Scorpion's sting. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the sun is just one. The thick hub of the galaxy is 30 000 light years away in the direction of Sagittarius.
Low in the south are the Pointers, Beta and Alpha Centauri, and Crux the Southern Cross. In some Maori star lore the bright southern Milky Way makes the canoe of Maui with Crux being the canoe's anchor hanging off the side. In this picture the Scorpion's tail can be the canoe's prow and the Clouds of Magellan are the sails. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star; 4.3 light years away.
The Clouds of Magellan, (LMC and SMC), high in the southern sky, are two small galaxies about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away, respectively. They are easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. The larger Cloud is about 1/20th the mass of the Milky Way galaxy, the smaller Cloud 1/30th. That's still billions of stars in each. The globular star cluster 47 Tucanae looks like a slightly fuzzy star near the top-right edge of the SMC. It is 'only' 16 000 light years away and merely on the line of sight to the SMC. Globular clusters are spherical clouds of stars many billions of years old.
Very low in the north is the Andromeda Galaxy, easily seen in binoculars in a dark sky and faintly visible to the eye. It appears as a spindle of light. It is similar in shape to our galaxy but is a little bigger and nearly three million light years away.
Venus, Mars and Jupiter are in the eastern dawn sky. The three planets are close together at the beginning of the month, rising after 4 a.m. Venus is brightest, with Jupiter a close second. Mars is a fainter red 'star', just below Venus. Venus continues to rise two hours before the sun while Jupiter and Mars rise progressively earlier. By mid-month Jupiter is leading the three up the eastern sky. Venus is at the lower right end of the line; Mars is in the middle. They keep this order as the gaps between the three grow. The grouping is just a line-of-sight effect, of course. At mid-month Venus is 126 million km away; Mars is 313 million and Jupiter 860 million km away. There is an old and unreliable rule that stars twinkle and planets don't. It works for Jupiter and usually for Venus.
*A light year (l.y.)is the distance that light travels in one year: nearly 10 million million km or 1013km. Sunlight takes eight minutes to get here; moonlight about one second. Sunlight reaches Neptune, the outermost major planet, in four hours. It takes sunlight four years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.