Despite November marking when it really becomes colder and everyone has to adopt of the coat once again, it is a great month for stargazing and especially for those wanting to witness some meteors.
Observing meteors can be a time-consuming event, and often it can be unpredictable. The weather, the Moon and the meteor activity can increase or decrease an observer’s chance of seeing a meteor shower. The position of the Moon in the sky and cloud cover can seriously deteriorate the chances of experiencing a meteor shower. To see a meteor shower, a lot of dedication and motivation is involved as long periods of time can pass with little to no activity. With this in mind the best time to see a meteor shower is usually in the early hours of the morning and in an area away from light pollution. Warm clothes are definitely recommended and don’t forget to give 20 minutes for vision to adjust to the dark surroundings, however this stands for any observation evening.
With a handful of meteor showers to choose from in November, one of the most promising is the Leonids which are due to begin on 13 November and continue until 21 November. Meteors are barely visible on the starting and end dates; however the Leonids are set to peak on the nights of 17 and 18 November. Observers can expect around 10 meteors an hour on the night of the peak, although every 33 years the Leonids experience a phase of increased activity as their parent comet passes the Earth once again. With this passing, viewers can expect hundreds or even thousands of meteors an hour; sadly this isn’t expected again until 2031.
As I mentioned above there is more than one meteor shower expected in the month of November and although their levels of activity are minimal, there is still the chance to experience a meteor travelling across the night’s sky.
Around 14 November, the faint and difficult to see Andromedids will be gracing the night’s sky although this may be in the range of about 3 meteors an hour. Despite this mediocre figure, the Andromedids once produced a shower of several thousand meteors an hour during 1872 and 1885, however this was explained by the splitting of its parent comet, 3D/Biela which were observed as two separate comets in 1846 and 1852 and later associated with the beautiful display in the years to follow. The Andromedids were given their name because of their origin in the night’s sky from the borders of Cassiopeia and Andromeda.
By finding the square of Pegasus, a key constellation in the Autumn sky, the top left star called Alpharatz has actually been regrouped into the constellation of Andromeda which will begin your search for meteors.
Another meteor shower worth mentioning is the Taurids, a long lasting shower between 12October and 2December. The Taurids are set to peak around 11 and 12 November with around 7 meteors an hour, although a bright moon on the 11th may disrupt viewings in the late evening as some of the brighter meteors will be difficult to see. The Taurids appear more promising than the Andromedids throughout the month and can be found bordering the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Taurus can be found above Orion the hunter who is easily found for his famous three star belt.
If observing meteors doesn’t sound like fun, there are still lots of interesting objects to keep your eyes peeled for this month. Towards the start of the month the planet Mercury is at its maximum elongation and will be at its furthest distance from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury in the sky as often it is too close to the sun and is difficult to see, not to mention the dangers of looking directly at the Sun. The only clause with viewing Mercury is that it must be during the early hours of the morning, just before the sun rises above the horizon. Mercury can be seen in the constellation of Virgo, in the south eastern part of the sky around 7am on the morning of 1 November. There is around a 15 minute window to view Mercury before the sun rises and it becomes difficult. It is visible to see Mercury with the naked eye, however using a telescope would give the best opportunity to really see this elusive planet as a tiny disc.
Mercury is not the only planet to view at this time of the year, Jupiter is also visible. On 1 November this planet is visible in the pre-dawn morning sky and can be easily found around the constellation of Leo. Leo can be found in the sky by looking for his head which looks like a backwards question mark
Once Leo is located, use the end star on Leo’s head and trace down to Jupiter. It will originally appear like a bright star, however through a pair of binoculars Jupiter will appear as a cream-yellow disc with small bright dots on either side which will actually be the Galilean moons; Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. During some observations only two or three moons will be visible however through the course of the month; there may be opportunities to see them all. For any observer’s that have a telescope to hand, the planet’s brown and orange coloured bands will be visible as well as the moons. Depending on the magnification of the telescope different features will be visible as a small telescope with a magnification of over 100 times will show the main bands and even some movements of the moons. However a much more powerful telescope of a few 100 times and above will show Jupiter’s infamous red spot and other atmospheric features.
For those who haven’t experienced the wonders of the night’s sky, the autumn and winter months have some of the most renowned and easiest to locate constellations. Admittedly many stargazers enjoy the clear, dark evenings for the benefit of learning the constellations and getting their bearings in the night’s sky, as everyone had to start somewhere. The Plough is one of the most renowned patterns in the night’s sky and one of the easiest to find for stargazers. It’s a great place to start and help identify the northern part of the sky. This saucepan shaped pattern is part of a much larger constellation called Ursa Major the Great Bear and can also help to identify the famous Northern Star or Polaris.
To find Polaris, use the two end stars of The Plough called Merek and Dubhe and span out in a straight line that will eventually reach the bright Northern Star. Polaris is also part of the constellation Ursa Minor the Little Bear. This is a great place to start when it comes to stargazing and will help motivate individuals on their journey of the night’s sky if one constellation is easily within reach.
(Article by Samantha Steed, Education Support Officer)