Article written by: Helen McLoughlin – Education Officer
October is over and the nights are drawing in. Instead of lamenting the fact that we are driving to and from work in the dark, let’s think of the positives – more time to stargaze! And there are plenty of interesting objects and constellations to look out for in November.
To begin with, there are a few meteorite showers to look out for this month. The first one is the Taurids Meteor Shower, which will reach it’s maximum rate of activity on the 4th November. This year the Moon will be 27 days old at the time of peak activity so there will be very little light interference from it. The shower appears to originate in the constellation of Taurus the Bull, however the shooting stars can be seen from all over the night sky.
These types of annual meteor showers appear when streams of debris left behind by comets and asteroids cross the Earth’s orbit. As these small bits of debris collide with the Earth, they burn up in the atmosphere and appear as shooting stars. In the case of the Taurids Meteor Shower this debris comes from the Comet Encke, named after Joann Franz Encke who first recognised it as a periodic comet in the 1800s.
We are treated to not one, but two meteor showers in the month of the November. The second one is the Leonids Meteor Shower, which can be expected to be seen between the 17th and 18th November. It normally radiates from the constellation of Leo the Lion and the best time to see it will be in the dark hour before sunrise on the morning of the 17th November. This will involve getting up early on a precious Saturday morning but it will be worth it if the skies are clear. You can always go back to bed afterwards!
Looking South, the constellations of Perseus and Cassiopeia are right above our heads.
Cassiopeia is one of the dominant constellations seen at this time of year with it’s clear ‘W’ shape. She was also a very domineering personality with a very interesting life according to Greek Mythology. Cassiopeia was an attractive and beautiful Queen and is pictured in the sky combing her long hair. However, she was not afraid to boast about her beauty, so much so that she claimed she was more beautiful that the lovely sea nymphs (all 50 of them). Revenge was sweet for the sea nymphs as when they heard the news they got Poseidon, the King of the Sea, to send Cetus the horrifying sea monster to Cassiopeia’s Kingdom. Things didn’t get much better for the Queen as on her death, she was placed in the sky as a constellation close to the north star – condemned to circle for all eternity, often hanging upside-down.
However awful Cassiopeia’s life became she is a great constellation to find and if you have access to a powerful telescope you should be able to find the Cassiopeia Supernova Remnant. Astronomers believe that here a massive star exploded around 330 years ago and approximately 11,000 light years away from us. The expanding cloud of debris from the supernova is now around 10 light years across. The rarified gas with the remnant is at a staggering 30 million degrees celsius, so hot that it emits its “light” in X-rays!
Located to the left of Cassiopeia is the great hero Perseus. This constellation does quite look like a man and in star charts he is pictured holding the head of the evil gorgon Medusa. If you know your Greek Mythology then you will know that if you looked into Medusa’s eyes you would be turned to stone but the brave and smart Perseus was able to kill Medusa. After she was slain, he popped her head in a bag and flew away on Pegasus the winged horse. On his journey home he came across Andromeda, the beautiful princess, who had been chained to a stone as a sacrifice for the sea monster Cetus. Any guesses who chained her there? That’s right. Queen Cassiopeia, her very own mother! Perseus held up the head of Medusa to Cetus who was instantly turned to stone. Andromeda fell into Perseus’ arms and they immediately fell in love. At last, a happy story to come from this family!
Finally, the famous star cluster the Pleiades is visible at this time of year, also known as the Seven Sisters. With the unaided eye we can see 6 or 7 stars in the cluster but it actually contains around 1,000 young stars. It is located around 400 light years away and it can be found in the hunched back of Taurus the Bull. The cluster is estimated to be between 75 and 150 million years old – still a child in the celestial context! The stars in Messier 45, as the Pleiades is also known as, will remain together for around for another 250 million years or so, in which time they will have orbited the Galaxy once – one galactic year! After this the stars are expected to scatter away from each other because of interactions with other stars, molecular clouds, and the spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy. While the stars will still be there, the beautiful Pleiades cluster will then no longer be evident!