The long cool November nights are perfect for observing stars, planets, and even galaxies. If you can see the glow of the Milky Way spanning the sky, you can probably also spot light coming from its twin sister: Andromeda.
Andromeda (a.k.a. M31) is the spiral galaxy closest to us. It’s found 2.55 million light-years from the Sun in—you guessed it—the constellation Andromeda.
Till very recently, this galaxy had a mysterious past. Astrophysicists had trouble figuring out why some of its stars moved so differently than comparable stars in our own galaxy. These disorderly movements can be explained by the way the nearby galaxy formed. The Andromeda Galaxy as we know it today is very likely the result of a collision that occurred nearly three billion years ago between two galaxies moving along the same trajectory. It’s estimated to contain about 400 billion stars, four times more than the Milky Way.
Though its past is somewhat of an enigma, rest assured that you can observe this galaxy quite easily. First, locate the constellation Cassiopeia (named after a queen in Greek mythology whose daughter is Andromeda). The constellation forms a big “W,” which is very high in the northeast sky on fall evenings. Pick out the point of the “W” that creates the sharpest angle, and use it as an arrow to find a faint smudge of light in the darkness among the stars. That smudge is the Andromeda Galaxy and also the farthest object we can see with the naked eye. If the sky isn’t very dark, use a pair of binoculars to make out this gorgeous galaxy.
Venus in the morning sky
A bit closer to home now, the planets put on a wonderful show this month. For early risers, stunning Venus is on display. At the beginning of November, it emerges above the east-southeastern horizon at dawn, around 5:30 a.m. (standard time), and remains clearly visible till 15 minutes before sunrise. But Venus drifts quickly away from the Sun, and as the days go by, it appears earlier and earlier. By late November, it’s visible starting at 4 a.m. and shines brightly above the southeastern horizon as the sky lightens. Besides hanging around in the sky longer, Venus is especially conspicuous because it reaches its maximum brightness on November 29.
If you’re itching for an additional challenge, try spotting the thin crescent Moon lying 9 degrees to the upper left of Venus on the morning of November 6.
Planets in the evening sky
In the early evening, Saturn catches our eye in the southwest. On November 11, check out the crescent moon lying 3 degrees to the upper left of the ringed planet starting at 5:30 p.m. Saturn gradually moves toward the Sun and sets a bit earlier as the days pass.
Mars steals the show in the first half of the night. Throughout November, the red planet shines due south a half-hour after sunset and disappears just before midnight on the west-southwestern horizon. On the evening of November 15, watch Mars waltz with the first quarter Moon, which draws closer to the red planet as the hours go by. Around 6 p.m., the duo shines in the south. Around 9:30 p.m., you can pick out the two celestial objects in the southwest. The pair sets around 11:30 p.m. on the west-southwestern horizon.
Ready for an extra challenge? On November 8, try to make out the thin crescent Moon 3 degrees above Jupiter, very low on the southwestern horizon about 15 minutes after sunset. If you do spot the crescent, keep an eye on it since it’ll slowly sink toward the horizon and vanish there about a half-hour later.