Mike Lynch’s Skywatch: Chills, but thrills, in the November night sky

1November 2020

The best news for stargazers in November is that nights are much longer! You can begin your pursuit of celestial pleasures way before 7. It is cooler, though, but you can certainly dress for that.

For all practical purposes, we have a full moon to kick off the month. The official full moon was on Oct. 31, but through Nov. 4 there’s still going to be a lot of moonlight in the early evening sky. That makes it tough to see fainter stars and constellations. The second and third weeks of November will be best for evening stargazing, with moonlight increasing the last week of the month.

No matter how much or how little moonlight is in your sky, you’ll have no trouble seeing Mars. Since their close encounter last month, Earth and Mars continue to pull away from each other in their respective orbits around the sun. Mars is still plenty bright though. As evening twilight is ending, it’s already shining brightly in the southeastern sky and will be available most of the night. Early November is the best time to check out Mars with a telescope because later in the month it will be fainter and smaller. Mars is fun to look at with a telescope because it’s the only other planet where you have a chance of seeing surface features like its northern polar cap and some of its vast basins and valleys. Make sure you take long continuous looks through your scope so your eyes can adjust to the light level in the eyepiece.

Since mid-summer, Jupiter and Saturn have been a staple of evening stargazing, and that continues in November. They’re in a super tight celestial hug, with Jupiter the brighter of the two, perched just to the lower right of Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn are headed for an historic conjunction next month as they get closer and closer to each other in the sky. By late December, Jupiter and Saturn will be almost “touching,” separated by only a tenth of a degree. It will be the closest Jupiter-Saturn conjunction since 1623.

Jupiter and Saturn are so close together already in November that you can get both giant planets in the same field of view with binoculars and even with wide-field telescopes. You can see Jupiter’s cloud bands and tiny star-like moons, as well as Saturn’s beautiful ring system. Honestly though, they’re going to appear a bit fuzzy. That’s because they’re so low in the sky, near the horizon where the layer of Earth’s blurring atmosphere is thicker.

Believe it or not, a few summer constellations are still available in the western sky in the early evening. Cygnus the Swan, Lyra the Harp, Aquila the Eagle, Delphinus the Dolphin, and a few others continue their gradual migration, making their slow exit from our stargazing stage.

In the high southern sky is one of the prime autumn constellations, Pegasus the Winged Horse, with Andromeda the Princess tagging along. If it’s dark enough where you are, it’s possible to see the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye. It’s over 2 million light-years away and the next-door neighbor of our home Milky-Way galaxy.

Turn around and face north and you’ll see an old friend, the Big Dipper, very low in the sky, and partially below the horizon in some locations. The Little Dipper, otherwise known as Ursa Minor, is hanging by its handle higher in the northern sky. Cassiopeia the Queen, the constellation that looks like a giant sideways W, is proudly showing off her stuff in the high northeast sky. The W outlines the throne of the Queen with Cassiopeia tied up in it.

As November progresses, you can’t help but notice a barrage of bright stars rising in the eastern sky. These are many of the magnificent constellations of winter! My nickname for this part of the heavens is “Orion and his Gang.” The majestic constellation Orion the Hunter is the centerpiece. Part of that gang includes the Pleiades, the best star cluster in the sky, resembling a miniature Big Dipper.

Dress warm and enjoy the fabulous November night skies!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net.   Mike is also available for private star parties. You can contact him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.


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