The clocks have gone back, 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 star 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:
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 neighbours, Vulpecula and Delphinus. They may be small, but they have a lot going for them, so take a look.
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. This year, 2020, the bright planet Mars is the way you’ll find the Square of Pegasus, as it’s the most obvious thing in the sky, really bright and red, with the Square to its upper right. More about Mars below.
Right below the Square of Pegasus 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 the Fishes, 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 astrological 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?
You can’t miss Mars, as it’s really bright and in the middle of the sky looking south. It was very close to Earth during October, and we are now moving away from it but it is still close – in fact, it won’t be as close again until 2035 so don’t miss your chance! If you have a telescope take a look, and if it magnifies about 100 times you should be able to see dome dark markings, if conditions are right. But if you can’t, don’t give up, because this month we have National Astronomy Week, and they will be livestreaming views of the planet between 14 and 22 November. Go to www.astronomyweek.org.uk to find out more, and don’t miss the great talks that will be on every day.
If you get out there just after sunset you can still see Jupiter low down in the south-west, very bright. And to its left is Saturn, a bit higher up. If you’ve never looked at Saturn through a telescope, try to get a look if you can. Maybe your school has a telescope, if you can persuade someone to stay behind until about 5 pm to let you use it.
Venus and Mercury are both in the early morning sky, and are visible about 6 am over to the east before the sunrise. Mercury is lower in the sky than Venus, and won’t be visible towards the end of the month.
For a detailed list of things happening in the sky, click here.
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 Moon will hinder observations at the start of the month.
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 skies should be darker. 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! But the source of the meteors, what’s called the radiant, doesn’t rise until about 10:30 pm.
What about the Moon, then?
At the very start of the month the Moon is pretty well full, as full Moon was on 31 October. Last quarter is on the 8th, and new Moon is on the 15th. First quarter follows on the 22nd, then the next full Moon is on the 30th. If it’s clear on the 16th take a look low in the west about half an hour after sunset and you might spot the very thin crescent Moon.
On the morning of the 30th, the full Moon sets just as the Sun is rising, and it passes through the edge of the Earth’s shadow. This is called a penumbral eclipse, but it is a very feeble affair compared with a total eclipse. And because it happens to take place at sunrise the sky will be pretty bright, and in fact the Moon will have set as seen over the southern half of the UK by the time the eclipse starts at 07:29 am. Those in Scotland might just see a slight dimming of the Moon’s top edge after this time before it sets.
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