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  800 Fort Negley Blvd., Nashville, TN 37203

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November 2017

After Sunset

For much of the year, we use the stars of the Big Dipper to help us find Polaris, the North Star. However, the Big Dipper is harder to find in autumn’s early evening hours. It appears very low to the northern horizon after sunset. Some of its stars even set below the horizon from our latitude in Tennessee. You’ll have to stay out past midnight to see it all.

Fortunately, another group of stars can help us find our way. Look for a group of five stars known as Cassiopeia the Queen. When the Big Dipper is low to the horizon, Cassiopeia is high in the north. The central peak of this constellation’s W-shape also points you in the direction of Polaris.

Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

Look high in the west for the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Despite the name, the Summer Triangle stars are a great sight for autumn skies and may be the first stars you’ll see as the sky begins to darken. The three stars are part of three separate constellations: Cygnus the SwanAquila the Eagle, and Lyra the Harp. The Summer Triangle is so named because it’s up all night during the summer, from sunset to sunrise. In the autumn, it’s already high overhead by sunset, and will set in the west before midnight.

High overhead are Pegasus the Flying Horse and Andromeda the Princess. Under dark skies, look for M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Try binoculars if you can’t see it with your unaided eyes. That faint smudge in the sky is a massive galaxy composed of hundreds of billions of stars, two million light years away from us.

Skywatchers under exceptionally dark skies on moonless nights may see the Milky Way stretching from the northeast to the southwest, passing high above through Cassiopeia.

Stay Up Late

As midnight approaches, the Big Dipper begins to rise in the northeast but won’t be fully visible until the pre-dawn hours. Pegasus and Andromeda are now high in the west. To the east, famous winter constellations Orion the HunterTaurus the Bull, and Gemini the Twins are easily visible.

A Look Ahead

As Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the winter evening sky.

Just before dawn, our autumn constellations have set in the west. For an hour or two before sunrise, red planet Mars is visible rising in the east, not far from the bright star Spica in Virgo the Maiden. Every morning Mars will move a little closer to Spica, until it passes the star at the end of the month. During the last few days of November, Jupiter may be found low in the southeast in the hour before sunrise.

Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium (stellarium.org) can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be, and help you plan your observing.

Leonid Meteor Shower

Every year around November 17, Earth plows through a trail of debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Tiny particles vaporize in Earth’s atmosphere, and we see fast streaks of light in the sky that we call meteors, or ‘shooting stars’.

This year the Leonid Meteor Shower peaks on the evening of November 17th and morning of the 18th. Meteor showers usually improve after midnight and are at their best before dawn, but you might still see some ‘shooting stars’ in the evening. No telescopes necessary! Bundle up warm, grab a lawn chair, a blanket, and a hot beverage – and bring along a friend! Face east, relax, gaze upwards, and most importantly, be patient. Most years the Leonid shower only produces a maximum rate of 10-15 meteors an hour, and that’s under good, dark skies away from city lights. The new Moon is also on the 18th, so this year there won’t be any moonlight to obscure the view.

The Leonids get their name from the spring constellation Leo the Lion, which rises in the dawn hours. Leonid meteors may appear anywhere in the sky, but they all will appear to be coming from the direction of Leo.

Time for a Change

At 2:00 am on Sunday morning, November 5, most of the United States will be asleep as we “fall back” from Daylight Saving to Standard Time. Don’t forget to set your clocks back by one hour before bedtime!

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
615-862-5160
Hours: 10:00am - 5:00pm
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