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The Sky This Week, 2010 November 9 - 16

Seven Sisters, Winter Stars, Dawn Greeters


 Cylindrical projection map of Jupiter
Based on observations made at USNO and
Shoestring Observatory, October 2010

The Moon waxes in the evening sky this week, climbing northward along the Ecliptic through the dim stars of the autumnal constellations. First Quarter occurs on the 13th at 11:39 Eastern Standard Time. Look for Luna close to bright Jupiter on the evenings of the 15th and 16th.

The switch back to Standard Time brings astronomical darkness upon us at around 6:30 pm as we work our way toward the earliest sunset of the year, which will occur on December 7th. As the week opens, with the crescent Moon hanging in the southwestern sky in the early evening, we have the chance to experience the rising of the winter constellations in all their glory before bright moonlight washes their fainter stars out. One of the first things you’ll notice as a harbinger of the winter stars is the small glowing knot of the Pleiades, which become prominent in the east by 8:00 pm. There are perhaps more myths and legends associated with this little asterism than any other constellation in the sky. Although none of the cluster’s individual stars shines brighter than third magnitude, together they command your attention, even under suburban skies. They have played a part in the sky lore of almost every civilization and culture on the planet, and have even figured prominently in J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of "Middle Earth". From a dark sky most of us can see six or seven stars, while folks with exceptionally keen vision may spot up to 14. Binoculars reveal dozens of fainter members, while small telescopes will take in a hundred or more. The Pleiades have always been associated with the onset of winter weather, but let’s hope that this year they are harbingers of less storminess than last year!

As the midnight hour approaches the dim stars of autumn are replaced by the dominant figure of Orion and his bright cohorts in the eastern sky. From a dark location this is one of the most colorful areas of the sky to explore, with the brighter stars glimmering in hues from the rusty glow of Betelgeuse and Aldebaran to the gold of Capella and the icy blue of Rigel and Sirius. No other part of the sky offers as many bright stars of such varied hue. If you find yourself up late in the chill of the late night take a few minutes to derive a little warmth from these wintertime beacons.

Easy to spot as soon as the Sun goes down id the giant planet Jupiter, high in the southeast during evening twilight. Now that we’re back on Standard Time Old Jove crosses the meridian shortly after 8:00 pm, making the early evening the ideal time to peruse his swirling clouds and darting moons with a small telescope. Jupiter is still missing one of his most prominent dark cloud belts, which has been absent from view for several months now. We do anticipate its return, since it always has come back in the past, but predicting weather on Jupiter is even trickier than trying to make a seven-day forecast here on Earth! Keep your eye on Jupiter, though, since he’s always full of surprises from night to night.

If you’re up before dawn at around 6:00 am these days, a number of bright objects are beginning to gather in the eastern sky. Golden Saturn rises about three hours before the Sun, followed by the bright star Arcturus, the star Spica, and finally the very bright glimmer of Venus. Over the course of the next few weeks these four luminaries will rise earlier each morning and gradually tighten their formation for a beautiful show in the gathering light of dawn.

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