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Constellations of the month




Saturn will be visible in the southwest at an elevation of ~11 degrees after sunset at the beginning of November but disappears into the Sun's glare by the end of the month. Its disk has an angular size of 15.7 arc seconds falling to 15.2 during the month as its brightness reduces from +0.5 to +0.6 magnitudes. The rings were at their widest last year but are still well open and spanning ~2.5 times the size of Saturn's globe. Saturn is moving slowly westwards over the 'teapot' of Sagittarius to the left of M8, the Lagoon Nebula.


Jupiter is now moving towards its superior conjunction behind the Sun on November 26th and will not be visible this month.


Mars, though fading from magnitudr -0.6 to -0.1, actually becomes more prominent in the southern sky as it climbs higher in elevation from ~17 degrees at the start of the month to ~27 degrees by its end. Its angular size falls from 11.9 arc seconds to 9.3 arc seconds during the month. Moving from Capricornus to Aquarius on November 11th, it should still be possible with a small to medium sized telescope to spot details, such as Syrtis Major, on its salmon-pink surface.


Venus passed between us and the Sun (inferior conjunction) on October 26th and will be seen in the east before sunrise from around the 6th of the month. A low eastern horizon will be needed though. As, at this time of the year, the ecliptic at dawn has a steep angle to the horizon, Venus rapidly increases in elevation as November progresses and will have an elevation of ~20 degrees before sunrise by month's end. Its angular size reduces from 60.6 to 41.4 arc seconds during the month as it moves away from the Earth but, at the same time, the precentage illuminated disk (its phase) increases from just 1% to 25% - which is why the brightness actually increases from -4.6 to a dazzling -4.9 magnitudes.


Mercury reaches it greatest elongation east from the Sun on November 6th but, as the angle of the ecliptic to the horizon in the evening is shallow at this time of the year, it will be lost in the Sun's glare as it moves towards inferior conjunction (between us and the Sun) on the 27th of the month.

The Night Sky In and Around Swindon November 2018

Slide Presentation

The following presentation was given at our last meeting by Rob Slack

The constellation Ursa Major

The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky. Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out! The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North. The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star. A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.

Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects. The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too. In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below. M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy". They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.

M81 and M82

Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects. It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms. With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).

M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy
Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough. Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left. This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge. M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.

M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy
Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes. It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right. Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.
Owl Nebul
M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula
The constellations of Lyra and Cygnus
This month the constellations Lyra and Cygnus are seen almost overhead as darkness falls with their bright stars Vega, in Lyra, and Deneb, in Cygnus, making up the "summer triangle" of bright stars with Altair in the constellation Aquila below. (see sky chart above)


Lyra is dominated by its brightest star Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky. It is a blue-white star having a magnitude of 0.03, and lies 26 light years away. It weighs three times more than the Sun and is about 50 times brighter. It is thus burning up its nuclear fuel at a greater rate than the Sun and so will shine for a correspondingly shorter time. Vega is much younger than the Sun, perhaps only a few hundred million years old, and is surrounded by a cold,dark disc of dust in which an embryonic solar system is being formed!

There is a lovely double star called Epsilon Lyrae up and to the left of Vega. A pair of binoculars will show them up easily - you might even see them both with your unaided eye. In fact a telescope, provided the atmosphere is calm, shows that each of the two stars that you can see is a double star as well so it is called the double double!

Epsilon Lyra - The Double Double
Between Beta and Gamma Lyra lies a beautiful object called the Ring Nebula. It is the 57th object in the Messier Catalogue and so is also called M57. Such objects are called planetary nebulae as in a telescope they show a disc, rather like a planet. But in fact they are the remnants of stars, similar to our Sun, that have come to the end of their life and have blown off a shell of dust and gas around them. The Ring Nebula looks like a greenish smoke ring in a small telescope, but is not as impressive as it is shown in photographs in which you can also see the faint central "white dwarf" star which is the core of the original star which has collapsed down to about the size of the Earth. Still very hot this shines with a blue-white colour, but is cooling down and will eventually become dark and invisible - a "black dwarf"!

M57 - the Ring Nebula
Image: Hubble Space Telescope
M56 is an 8th magnitude Globular Cluster visible in binoculars roughly half way between Alberio (the head of the Swan) and Gamma Lyrae. It is 33,000 light years away and has a diameter of about 60 light years. It was first seen by Charles Messier in 1779 and became the 56th entry into his catalogue.

M56 - Globular Cluster


Cygnus, the Swan, is sometimes called the "Northern Cross" as it has a distinctive cross shape, but we normally think of it as a flying Swan. Deneb,the arabic word for "tail", is a 1.3 magnitude star which marks the tail of the swan. It is nearly 2000 light years away and appears so bright only because it gives out around 80,000 times as much light as our Sun. In fact if Deneb where as close as the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, it would appear as brilliant as the half moon and the sky would never be really dark when it was above the horizon!

The star, Albireo, which marks the head of the Swan is much fainter, but a beautiful sight in a small telescope. This shows that Albireo is made of two stars, amber and blue-green, which provide a wonderful colour contrast. With magnitudes 3.1 and 5.1 they are regarded as the most beautiful double star that can be seen in the sky.

Cygnus lies along the line of the Milky Way, the disk of our own Galaxy, and provides a wealth of stars and clusters to observe. Just to the left of the line joining Deneb and Sadr, the star at the centre of the outstretched wings, you may, under very clear dark skys, see a region which is darker than the surroundings. This is called the Cygnus Rift and is caused by the obscuration of light from distant stars by a lane of dust in our local spiral arm. the dust comes from elements such as carbon which have been built up in stars and ejected into space in explosions that give rise to objects such as the planetary nebula M57 described above.

There is a beautiful region of nebulosity up and to the left of Deneb which is visible with binoculars in a very dark and clear sky. Photographs show an outline that looks like North America - hence its name the North America Nebula. Just to its right is a less bright region that looks like a Pelican, with a long beak and dark eye, so not surprisingly this is called the Pelican Nebula. The photograph below shows them well.

Below Porrima and to the right of Spica lies M104, an 8th magnitude spiral galaxy about 30 million light years away from us. Its spiral arms are edge on to us so in a small telescope it appears as an elliptical galaxy. It is also known as the Sombrero Galaxy as it looks like a wide brimmed hat in long exposure photographs.

The North American Nebula

Brocchi's Cluster An easy object to spot with binoculars in Gygnus is "Brocchi's Cluster", often called "The Coathanger",although it appears upside down in the sky! Follow down the neck of the swan to the star Alberio, then sweep down and to its lower left. You should easily spot it against the dark dust lane behind.
Image of the month

The barred spiral galaxy NGC 1672.
Image: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA.

NGC 1672 is a spiral galaxy with a prominent central bar. This wonderful Hubble image shows dark dust lanes, young clusters of bright blue stars and pink-red HII emission regions (like our Orion nebula) of star formation. It centre harbours a supermassive black hole. Lying some 60 million light years away in the constellation of Dorado it spans about 75,000 light years across.
Compiled by Prof. Ian Morison
November early mornings: November Meteors

A Leonid crossing the Sword of Orion

In the hours before dawn, November gives us a chance to observe meteors from two showers. The first that it is thought might produce some bright events is the Northern Taurids shower which has a broad peak of around 10 days but normally gives relatively few meteors per hour. The peak is around the 10th of November but then the Moon is close to New Moon so its light will not intrude. The meteors arise from comet 2P/Encke. Its tail is especially rich in large particles and, this year, we may pass through a relatively rich band so it is possible that a number of fireballs might be observed!

The better known November shower is the Leonids which peak on the night of the 17th/18th of the month. The Moon is just after First Quarter so its light will hinder our view early on. As one might expect, the shower's radiant lies within the sickle of Leo and meteors could be spotted from the 15th to the 20th of the month. The Leonids enter the atmosphere at ~71 km/sec and this makes them somewhat challenging to photograph but its worth trying as one might just capture a bright fireball. Up to 15 meteors an hour could be observed if near the zenith. The Leonids are famous becaus every 33 years a meteor storm might be observed when the parent comet, 55P/Temple-Tuttle passes close to the Sun. In 1999, 3,000 meteors were observed per hour but we are now halfway between these impressive events hence with a far lower expected rate.

The planets this month
The constellations of Pegasus and Andromeda

The Square of Pegasus is in the south during the evening and forms the body of the winged horse. The square is marked by 4 stars of 2nd and 3rd magnitude, with the top left hand one actually forming part of the constellation Andromeda. The sides of the square are almost 15 degrees across, about the width of a clentched fist, but it contains few stars visibe to the naked eye. If you can see 5 then you know that the sky is both dark and transparent! Three stars drop down to the right of the bottom right hand corner of the square marked by Alpha Pegasi, Markab. A brighter star Epsilon Pegasi is then a little up to the right, at 2nd magnitude the brightest star in this part of the sky. A little further up and to the right is the Globular Cluster M15. It is just too faint to be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars show it clearly as a fuzzy patch of light just to the right of a 6th magnitude star.


The stars of Andromeda arc up and to the left of the top left star of the square, Sirra or Alpha Andromedae. The most dramatic object in this constellation is M31, the Andromeda Nebula. It is a great spiral galaxy, similar to, but somewhat larger than, our galaxy and lies about 2.5 million light years from us. It can be seen with the naked eye as a faint elliptical glow as long as the sky is reasonably clear and dark. Move up and to the left two stars from Sirra, these are Pi amd Mu Andromedae. Then move your view through a rightangle to the right of Mu by about one field of view of a pair of binoculars and you should be able to see it easily. M31 contains about twice as many stars as our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and together they are the two largest members of our own Local Group of about 3 dozen galaxies.

M31 - The Andromeda Nebula
M33 in Triangulum

If, using something like 8 by 40 binoculars, you have seen M31 as described above, it might well be worth searching for M33 in Triangulum. Triangulum is the small faint constellation just below Andromeda. Start on M31, drop down to Mu Andromedae and keep on going in the same direction by the same distance as you have moved from M31 to Mu Andromedae. Under excellent seeing conditions (ie., very dark and clear skies) you should be able to see what looks like a little piece of tissue paper stuck on the sky or a faint cloud. It appears to have uniform brightness and shows no structure. The shape is irregular in outline - by no means oval in shape and covers an area about twice the size of the Moon. It is said that it is just visible to the unaided eye, so it the most distant object in the Universe that the eye can see. The distance is now thought to be 3.0 Million light years - just greater than that of M31.

M33 in Triangulum - David Malin
November - late evening: find the asteroid Juno in Eridanus
Asteroid 3, Juno, makes its closest approach to Earth on the night of November 16/17th moving southwards in Eridanus (lower right of Orion). On November 1st, looking southeast at ~11pm, it will have an elevation of 27degrees and, with a magnitude of 7.58, lie just above the 5.2 magnitude star 35 Eridani - so helping to find it with binoculars. On the 17th, with a magnitude of 7.46, it will lie just down to the right of 4.7th magnitude 32 Eridani and, continuing its southwards track will end the month just above magnitude 5.5 Eridani having a magnitude again of 7.58.

Compiled by Ian Morison - Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics