Between the Milky Way last summer and the twinkling stars this winter, the long evenings of the late fall promise some of the most beautiful skies of the year. Since bright planets aren’t visible in the evening, focus your instruments instead on more distant astronomical objects — or try to skywatch in the early morning.
A morning rendezvous
The month’s most remarkable astronomical event happens between 6 and 6:30 a.m. on November 13 when the bright planets Venus and Jupiter are only a quarter of a degree apart (about half the Moon’s diameter). This conjunction allows you to observe the two planets in the same field of view of your binoculars or telescope. An instrument is recommended because dawn will already be well underway by the time the duo reaches an observable altitude above the east-southeast horizon.
The mornings following this encounter are also worth checking out. On November 14, the waning crescent Moon, Mars and the star Spica form a nice visual alignment above Venus and Jupiter as they rise. The Moon then joins these two planets in the days following, creating several interesting configurations till November 17.
Planets at twilight
At twilight, it’s Mercury’s turn to appear briefly on the southwest horizon. The small planet moves gradually away from our star and shows up in the glow of the setting Sun in the second half of November. Mercury reaches its maximum elongation from the Sun on the 23rd. To observe this elusive planet, you need an unobstructed view since the tilt of its orbit keeps it close to the horizon.
November is also your last chance to observe Saturn in the evening while, from our viewpoint on Earth, the giant planet slides slowly behind the Sun. Check the south-southwest horizon as the first stars come out. Saturn is the brightest object in this direction before Mercury joins it at the end of the month.
The evenings of November 19, 20 and 21 are especially good times to say a final goodbye to the ringed giant. The thin crescent Moon joins Mercury and Saturn on these dates, offering some beautiful sights at dusk.
The eclipsed bull’s eye
The Moon passes in front of the bright star Aldebaran on the evening of November 5 between 8:07 and 9:04 p.m. EST in Montreal. Note that the timing of the phenomenon depends on your exact geographic position, so be ready a few minutes early to see the star suddenly disappear and then watch it reappear less than an hour later. This occultation of the amazing red star in the constellation Taurus is also a good time to watch the Moon pass in front of the Hyades star cluster.
Less known than the famous Pleiades cluster, the Hyades are also an open star cluster, a group of relatively young stars still gravitationally bound after their common birth in a nebula.
The open cluster closest to us in space, the Hyades cover a large expanse of sky. From our viewpoint on Earth, the brightest stars in the cluster join Aldebaran to form the V-shaped head of the bull Taurus.
The bright stars in the cluster create a good backdrop for observing the movement of our natural satellite. But the moonless mid-November nights are a better time to admire the full expanse of the glow created by the fainter stars populating the cluster.
A wealth of clusters
The Hyades aren’t the only open cluster that’s easy to observe with the naked eye or binoculars. The Double Cluster in the constellation Perseus is spectacular at low magnification. To locate it, first look for the W of the constellation Cassiopeia very high near the zenith on fall evenings. You can find the Double Cluster by extending the second segment of the W (formed by the stars Gamma Cassiopeiae and Ruchbah) one and a half lengths downward.
With a good pair of binoculars or small telescope, you can also spot M52, another open cluster that’s easy to find in the constellation Cassiopeia. Just extend the last leg of the W (between the stars Schedar and Caph) one length upward till you see a glowing expanse of sky half the size of the full Moon. The 200 stars in the 52nd object in Messier’s catalogue are visible even from the outskirts of a city.
Your skywatching isn’t complete without a peek at M45, better known as the Pleiades. This rich cluster, a winter icon, stands out in the evening sky above the east horizon, reaching 30 degrees of elevation by 9 p.m. early in the month. On November 4, the full Moon joins the Hyades and Pleiades in the constellation Taurus, promising photographers some great pictures. Though the Pleiades can be easily viewed with binoculars, long-exposure photography brings out the cluster’s full depth and reveals the wispy remnants of the nebula that spawned these hundreds of stars.
These clusters are all great targets if you’re interested in astrophotography. You just need a tripod, settings allowing a few seconds of exposure, a good zoom and, ideally, a clear sky.