Popular Astronomy

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Stumble It More...

What's Up for November 2017

The dark evenings are upon us and the stars are just crying out to be observed, if you can avoid the fireworks at the beginning of the month. But which is which?

When you are a beginner, there's a lot to learn in a short time. But you don't have to go it alone – we're here to help. This page will get you started. Even so, the only way you can really do it is to go out and see for yourself.

Oh, the usual Health and Safety warning. It can get pretty cold out there, so put your coat on. This is not your mother talking, it just makes sense. The more comfortable you are, the better you will enjoy stargazing. Who cares if it's an anorak – no one can see you. And a bobble hat helps, too. Go mad. Wear two. A hoodie? That's up to you, as long as the hood doesn't actually cover your eyes when you look up....

You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here is our map for this month:

Sky for November 2017

Wrong way round?

Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round. How you hold your computer above your head is up to you! Better use a tablet.

It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.

The map shows the sky in the middle of the month at about 8 pm, at the start of the month at 9 pm, or by the end of the month at 7 pm.

TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.

Making sense of the stars

One constellation or star group that many people recognise straight away is the Plough. This is low down in the north at the moment, so turn the map upside down and you will  see the seven-star pattern in the north-west. OK, it might not look much like one of those spiky things you see in fields being towed around by a Massey Ferguson, but these names were given a long time ago, long before Massey met Ferguson. So think of it as a saucepan instead. Once you have found this, you will get an idea of the scale of the map compared with the sky.

Next turn round so you're facing south and look over your head for the three stars marked Deneb, Vega and Altair. Vega is also one of the brightest stars in the sky. Altair has two fainter stars on either side of it, though in a poor sky you may only see the upper one. These three stars, Deneb, Vega and Altair are called the Summer Triangle, even though they are still visible well into autumn.

Once you have found the Summer Triangle, you can now start to look for some constellations. There's Cygnus, the Swan, also known as the Northern Cross. It is a large cross-shape with Deneb at the top, marking the tail of the swan which flies down the Milky Way with outstretched wings. Fair point. You live in Neasden or Newcastle and can't see this Milky Way which is shown on the map. You'll just have to take our word for it that it's there. To find out more about Cygnus, including why it is unsuitable for children, click here. One of the best-known stars in Cygnus is Albireo, a fairly faint star marking the head of the Swan, or the foot of the Cross. Midway between Altair and Albireo is a rather cute constellation called Sagitta, which means Arrow, along with two neighboursVulpecula and Delphinus.  They may be small, but they have a lot going for them, so take a look.

Map for November 17 with constellation names
All maps produced using Stellarium software.

Other things to look for

Now look south and try to find a big square of stars (see detailed view above). We are not accepting complaints that it isn't a perfect square – give us a break, we have to make the most of the shapes the stars make.  It's known as the Square of Pegasus, and represents a flying horse. Fortunately for those of us down on Earth, this horse has no rear end.  Circlet. Copyright Robin Scagell/Galaxy

Right below it is another rather cute shape – a ring of stars known among friends as the Circlet. This isn't a constellation as it is actually meant to be one of the two fish that make up the constellation Pisces, but it's one of the best bits of Pisces which is a very, very faint constellation. If Pisces is your ‘sign’, tough. Just shows what a load of bunk star signs are! You might need binoculars to find the Circlet, but it's worth a look (see picture at right).

The upper left star of the Square of Pegasus is shared with the constellation of Andromeda, which is famous for the Andromeda Galaxy. The Square is the ideal starting point for finding this galaxy, which you can see even from town centres under the right conditions, particularly with binoculars. Find out how in our guide to Andromeda and Pegasus.

You can use the Square of Pegasus as a signpost to find other constellations. Follow the diagonal down to the lower right an equal distance and you come to a faint group of stars known as the Water Jar of Aquarius.  You'll probably need binoculars to find this in a town sky. It's easily recognised by its arrow shape, which looks a bit like a fighter plane with swept wings.  Though it's not the brightest part of Aquarius, it's a good pattern that helps you to find the other stars.

Following the diagonal the other way takes you to two bright stars which are the main stars of Andromeda. Go one further and you get to Perseus, which contains several goodies worth looking for.

Follow the right-hand edge of the Square right down to the horizon and you'll see the bright star Fomalhaut, in the constellation of the Southern Fish. If you are observing from farther south than the UK, this will be higher in the sky. From even farther north, it is lower still.

If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here

Where are the planets?

There's a bit of a planet famine on at the moment – and things won't get better until next April! This is the longest period for years when there have been no bright planets in the evening sky. 

If you're desperate to see a planet, all the action is in the morning sky, in the south-east about an hour before sunrise. Mars rises first, as a fairly bright reddish star in the pre-dawn sky. Around the middle of the month , the crescent Moon is not far from it. Following it are Jupiter and Venus, which are much brighter but are closer to the Sun, so there's only a short period when you can see them before the sky gets too bright. On the 13th they are less than a degree apart, which will be an unusual sight.  

Saturn and Mercury are too close to the Sun to be seen easily this month, though Saturn is just visible low down in the south-west after sunset. When planets are so low, details are not easy to see on them because of the turbulence of our atmosphere shaking the image around, but you should still be able to see the rings through a small telescope.

For a detailed list of things happening in the sky, click here.

Shooting stars...

There are two meteor showers (shooting stars) in November, though neither are likely to be spectacular. During the first part of the month there are the Taurids, which might give a meteor every 10 minutes or so if you are lucky, coming from Taurus which is over to the east of the map. They are active until late November, but the full Moon will hinder observations during the first week.

Then around the 17th after about 11 pm you might see Leonid meteors, which also occur each year at this time. This year they coincide with a new Moon which will help, as any moonlight makes it hard to see the fainter meteors. In some years, Leonid meteors can appear in huge numbers though this year isn't expected to be one of them. But you never know.... keep an eye open! There are often occasional meteors that are not part of the Leonids or Taurids at this time of year anyway, so you may see one at any time.

What about the Moon, then?

It begins the month just coming up to full Moon, which is on the 4th,  so it will be obvious during all those firework shows. Last quarter is on the 10th, then comes New Moon on the 18th. You might just see the crescent Moon in the western twilight on the 20th about half an hour after sunset, but it will be very low down and thin. If you see it, also look for Saturn just to its left. You will stand a better chance of seeing the crescent Moon on the 21st, with Saturn below and to its right . Finally there's first quarter on the 26th. Sorry, no eclipses this month. We have a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features.

Get more helpful info

OK, you've read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It's based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn't cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer. 
Text by Robin Scagell