Upstate New York Stargazing – December, 2016

Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.

Upstate NY Stargazing in December: Geminid meteor shower, another Supermoon

The author, adequately layered for an exceptionally cold observing session earlier this year.

Updated: Jan. 02, 2019, 4:15 p.m. | Published: Dec. 01, 2016, 11:15 a.m.

(Special to Syracuse.com)

By Damian Allis, Contributing Writer

It is not common knowledge, but the late-autumn and winter holidays were strategically placed to allow amateur astronomers in New York to bulk up on high calorie foods for the many long nights of observing to be had before pre-dawn snow turns back into light drizzles. While advocates for some outdoor avocations go into hibernation mode near the first snow, celestial observers prepare for crisp and clear nighttime skies by stocking up on batteries and hand-warmers.

New and unprepared observers come face-to-frozen-face with the harsh reality of cold temperatures the first time they strike out for nighttime viewing in winter. Observing through binoculars or telescopes is a very stationery activity, where the goal is to move as little as possible to not disturb your view through the eyepiece. Your lack of motion has a tendency of making you feel very cold very quickly. Furthermore, when the temperature outside drops below that of your skin or your last good layer of clothing, you become the heat source for your surroundings and not vice versa – this can make for some very short observing sessions.

If you're thinking about attending any observing session in New York this winter, stop thinking and start planning. The winter skies are beautiful and filled with some amazing objects at any magnification provided you're dressed for the occasion. You need only be adequately prepared for the session, which means having on hand at least one more layer than you *think* you will need. Back in the day, many an observer would even have a telephone book ready to stand on to provide an additional layer of insulation between toes and ground. You may have trouble finding an adequately thick stack of cheap paper nowadays, but that first encounter with numb toes can coax you into some quality recycling bin search time.

Your First Steps Outside:

The view looking south at 8 p.m. on Dec. 15 (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of December). Click for a larger view.

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York state. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

Mars: Mars continues its slow migration along the horizon from southwest to west this month, setting at around 9:00 p.m. each night in the process. Those keeping track of zodiacal constellations will note that Mars begins near the eastern-most corner of Capricorn before sliding into Aquarius on December 15th, trailed closely by bright Venus, which spends nearly the entire month in Capricorn. While Mars will not have close encounters with any deep sky objects this month, scope owners will be treated to very close pairing of Mars and Neptune on Dec. 31, as well as a close pairing to ring in the New Year on Jan. 1.

An ideal opportunity to find a distant planet using a nearby one. On Dec. 31, Mars and Neptune will be at their closest. To get a feel for how much the planets move each night, try observing on Jan. 1 to see Mars' new location. Click for a larger view.

Venus: We gain about two additional minutes of Venus viewing each night this month, setting close to 7:05 p.m. on the 1st and 8:20 p.m. on the 31st. After the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the sky after sunset and should jump right out at you to the southwest. You'll have plenty of time to work on training your eyes to see first sight of Venus in the sky, as it remains with us near sunset until well into March 2017. Mars will hand off its close approach duties to Venus in January, when Venus and Neptune appear very close in the sky on Jan. 12.

Mercury, Venus, and Mars just after sunset on Dec. 15. Click for a larger view.

Mercury: Mercury will be a tough catch this month, as it is not particularly bright and is very close to the horizon at sunset. Your best chance to see it will be on Dec. 15, when it will be nearly perfectly southwest after sunset and all but gone before 6 p.m. That said, Mercury will be in roughly the same position and early-setting until around the 20th. If you can find Mercury, Venus and Mars will be much easier catches as you swing your sights higher and to the south.

Lunar occultation of Aldebaran on Dec. 12/13

If you go outside at, say, 9 p.m. over several consecutive nights and compare the position of the Moon to the stars and constellations in the sky, it will be obvious to you that the Moon makes a significant leap east each night. This is, of course, the motion of the Moon around the Earth that you are noticing. The Moon is, in fact, constantly in motion around the Earth, just as the Earth-Moon pair moves in our orbit around the Sun. The clearest indicator of this constant lunar motion comes from watching a star disappear behind the eastern side of the Moon, only to reappear on the western side up to 80 minutes later (depending on if the star is gazing the Moon's edge or if you have to wait a full Moon diameter's worth to see the star pop back out). Such an event, referred to as an occultation, is going to occur this month when the Moon occults the bright star Aldebaran, bright red-orange eye of the constellation Taurus the Bull.

Observers should see the occultation begin close to 11:09 p.m. on December 12th, lasting about 75 minutes when Aldebaran reappears on the western edge of the Moon at 12:23 a.m. on the 13th. These lunar occultations are common events – the Moon is always blocking some piece of the sky each night. This particular occultation is special because a very bright star is involved, making the whole disappearing-reappearing act all the more pronounced with or without magnification.

When an occultation involving a distant star and, for instance, a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn occurs, we get more than a disappearing act. As the star begins to slip behind the planet, it does not disappear all at once, instead trailing off quickly behind the planet's upper atmosphere. By measuring the light of the star without the planet and then measuring the change in the star's light because of the planet, scientists and amateur astronomers alike are able to identify the gases in these planetary atmospheres from the comfort of their own telescopes and spectrometers. Keen observers this night will learn what the Apollo astronauts experienced firsthand – Aldebaran will fizzle out immediately due to the lack of any measurable lunar atmosphere.

Just before and after the lunar occultation of Aldebaran. Click for a larger view.

Early Riser Alert

Jupiter: Jupiter rises above the eastern horizon near 3:00 a.m. on December 1st and by 1:30 a.m. at month's end. Its four Galilean Moons – Callisto, Io, Europa, and Ganymede – are all visible in low-power binoculars when Jupiter rises, but are washed out early by sunlight even before sunrise approaches. Jupiter and the very waning crescent moon will make a very nice pairing after 2:00 a.m. on Dec. 22.

Saturn: Those who want one last easy view of Saturn in 2016 will have to wait until just before sunrise at the very end of December, when it rises just after Antares, the heart of the summer constellation Scorpius.

December observing opportunities In Upstate/Central New York:

New York has a number of evenly-spaced astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host sessions throughout the year. Many of these sessions are free and open to the public, often close to the New Moon when skies are darkest and the chance for seeing deep, distant objects is greatest. These observers and facilities are the very best places to see the month's best objects using some of the best equipment, all while having very knowledgable observers at your side to answer questions and guide discussion. Many of these organizations also hold monthly meetings, where seasoned amateurs can learn about recent news and discoveries from guest lecturers, and brand new observers are encouraged to join and begin the path towards seasoned amateur status.

Announced public sessions from several respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for December. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the website links or email the groups for directions and to find out about an event a day-or-so before the announced session. Also note that some groups will include weather-alternate dates for scheduled sessions.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingDec. 26:00 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingDec. 166:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyPublic LectureDec. 157:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureDec. 207:00 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusGeminids With Bob PiekielDec. 137:00 – 10:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalNanomaterials Lecture And Public ViewingDec. 27:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"Star Of Bethlehem" Movie And Public ViewingDec. 97:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"Star Of Bethlehem" Movie And Public ViewingDec. 167:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingDec. 37:30 PM – 10:00 AMemail, website

ISS And Other Bright Flyovers:

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes per hour, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

December is full of early-evening ISS flyovers, including nine days when observers will be treated to two passes separated by about 90 minutes – the time it takes for the ISS to go once around the Earth. Early birds will have three chances to see flyovers during the last three days of the month. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

ISS fly-bys

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart DirectionApprox. EndEnd Direction
12/1extremely5:51 PMS/SW5:55 PME
12/1somewhat7:28 PMW7:28 PMW
12/2very5:00 PMS5:05 PME
12/2very6:36 PMW/SW6:38 PMW/NW
12/3extremely5:44 PMSW5:49 PME/NE
12/3somewhat7:21 PMW/NW7:21 PMW/NW
12/4very6:29 PMW6:31 PMN/NW
12/5extremely5:36 PMW5:42 PMNE
12/5somewhat7:14 PMNW7:14 PMNW
12/6moderately6:22 PMW/NW6:24 PMN/NW
12/7very5:29 PMW5:34 PMNE
12/8moderately6:15 PMNW6:17 PMN
12/9very5:22 PMW/NW5:27 PMNE
12/9somewhat7:00 PMNW7:00 PMNW
12/10moderately6:08 PMNW6:10 PMN
12/11moderately5:15 PMNW5:20 PMNE
12/11somewhat6:52 PMNW6:53 PMNW
12/12very6:00 PMNW6:03 PMN/NE
12/13very5:08 PMNW5:13 PMNE
12/13moderately6:44 PMNW6:45 PMNW
12/14very5:52 PMNW5:56 PMNE
12/15very5:00 PMNW5:06 PME/NE
12/15very6:36 PMW/NW6:39 PMNW
12/16extremely5:44 PMNW5:49 PME
12/16somewhat7:21 PMW7:22 PMW
12/17very6:29 PMW/NW6:33 PMS
12/18extremely5:37 PMW/NW5:43 PMSE
12/19somewhat6:22 PMW6:26 PMS
12/20moderately5:29 PMW/NW5:35 PMS/SE
12/22somewhat5:22 PMW5:26 PMS/SW
      
12/29moderately6:25 AMS6:30 AME
12/30somewhat5:34 AMS/SE5:36 AME/SE
12/31very6:16 AMSW6:22 AME/NE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com.

Moon:

Lunar Phases

New:First Quarter:Full:Third Quarter:New:
Nov. 29, 7:18 AMDec. 7, 4:03 AMDec. 13, 7:05 PMDec. 20, 8:55 PMDec. 29, 1:53 AM

The moon's increasing brightness as full moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the moon is a wonderful binocular object.

In the interest of completeness, we note that the last supermoon of 2016 will occur on December 14th. The term "supermoon" is not an astronomical description of any significant event, but instead owes its origin to modern astrologer Richard Nolle (and don't get an astronomer started with that debate). For those interested in technical jargon, astronomers refer to these closest approaches of the Moon to the Earth as perigee-syzygy. Perigee describes when the Moon is closest to the Earth in its orbit; Syzygy occurs when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned, which happens at either New Moon (Sun-Moon-Earth) or Full Moon (Sun-Earth-Moon). For those counting double-letter/double-word scores, syzygy also only occurs when someone combines the tiles from two or more Scrabble boxes.

Sadly, the December supermoon has only one superpower – it will wash out the shooting stars from the Geminids, greatly diminishing this otherwise decent meteor shower.

Meteor Showers: Geminids, Peaking Dec. 12-14

Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identity and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

Gemini rises soon after Orion, with Orion's three belt stars being a very easy find for most people. Click for a larger view.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. In the case of the Geminids, the meteor shower radiant appears to be next to Castor, both the name of one of the twins and the name of his head star. Unlike most of the meteor showers, the Geminids are not produced by a comet – asteroid 3200 Phaethon, an unassuming object not discovered until 1983, has an eccentric 1.4 year orbit that places it near the path of Earth's orbit. Because of its proximity and quick orbit, 3200 Phaethon has great opportunity to repopulate its orbit with small particulates, meaning the Geminids are often a stand-out meteor shower for the year.

The eccentric orbit of 3200 Phaethon in the inner solar system.

How to observe: The Geminids can be impressive and impressively bright, with up-to 120 meteors per hour possible. Sadly, the Moon will be prominent in the late-night/early-morning sky during the days around the Geminid peak, making for a far less impressive display. Those observing the Aldebaran occultation on the night of December 12th might even be able to catch a few of the brightest meteors that night.

To optimize your experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed towards Gemini and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you. Counts and brightness tend to increase the later you stay out, with peak observing times usually between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. The swarm of tiny particles is distributed broadly in orbit, meaning some people may see shooting stars associated with the Geminids throughout the middle of the month.

Learn A Constellation: Taurus The Bull

Taurus the Bull and nearest neighbors. Click for a larger view.

Once upon a time in our distant ancestral past, someone broke an excellent spear tip trying to take down a jagged rock that just happened to look like dinner under the fading light of sunset. More recently, it's a fair bet that everyone has looked up at the clouds or into just the right thicket of bushes to see some kind of animal-like feature jump out. This phenomenon, known as pareidolia, is the result of some kind of stimulus, be it a sound or a sight, that you then interpret as something very different.

Many of the oldest constellations are textbook pareidolia. The stars of Orion the Hunter are perfectly placed now to look like a human being, just as the constellation Scorpius has been recorded as a scorpion in every civilization that knew what a real scorpion looked like. These and other characters have been with Western cultures for thousands of years.

This all leads to a great question in astronomy and human history – just how old is the oldest recognized constellation? At what point in our history could we travel back to and have a distant ancestor and ourselves agree on what a shape in the sky looks like?

One answer was uncovered in the Lascaux caves in France, when an archeologist with some astronomical inkling noticed that one image of a bull had black spots at strategic points along the horns and around the head, including one notably larger black spot for one of the two eyes. To the right of this cluster of marks lay a tightly-packed cluster of black dots, while to the left lay a line of three (actually, four) stars. If we take this arrangement at rock-face value, the placement of the three-dot line to the left and tight cluster to the right line up very well with the placement of Orion's Belt (to the left) and the Pleiades star cluster (to the right) on either side of the head of what we today call Taurus the Bull. If this arrangement and overlaid image of a bull are what the original artist intended, and we take the carbon dating at face value, then we've compelling evidence that Taurus the Bull, in some form, might date back over 17,500 years.

No bull – a Lascaux painting marking the location of an ancient Taurus, c.a. 15,500 B.C. Click for a larger view.

While it is wondrous to think that this celestial meme was passed down by ancestral astronomers throughout southern Europe into the Middle East and North Africa, it is likely that the meaning of the representation at Lascaux died with its painter, and our modern Taurus is instead a result of someone else seeing the same shape on a winter night long ago.

Taurus is featured several times in this month's article, including its close proximity to Gemini and, of course, the Aldebaran occultation on December 12th. In last month's article, we described how Taurus contains the two closest prominent open star clusters in our neighborhood – the Pleiades and the Hyades. The head of Taurus the Bull is the closest star cluster to Earth – the Hyades. While the bright Aldebaran is perfectly placed to make the whole object look like a prominent "V," this is only because we see the sky as flat. Aldebaran, at 65 light years away, is not a member of the Hyades cluster, which lies roughly 150 light years from us.

The Pleiades are the most famous of these open clusters due to their proximity – in binoculars, the famed Seven Sisters increase in number to the mid-30's. The actual count of stars in this collective is measured as being close to 1000. On cloudy nights, observers need only find their nearest parking lot to see a rough map of the Pleiades in the form of a logo – in Japanese, the Pleiades are known as "Subaru," meaning "united."

Damian G. Allis, Ph.D. is the director of CNY Observers (www.cnyo.org) and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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Upstate New York Stargazing – November, 2016

Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.

November Stargazing in Upstate NY: Catch the sometimes roaring Leonids

A 30 second exposure of the International Space Station above Lake Ontario and just past the Big Dipper (left). Photo by Don Chamberlin, member of ASRAS-Rochester Astronomy Club.

Updated: Mar. 22, 2019, 12:53 a.m. | Published: Oct. 31, 2016, 3:13 p.m.

(Special to Syracuse.com)

By Damian Allis, Contributing writer

There are some at observing sessions who, upon seeing a satellite for the first time, marvel at just how bright something so small and far away can be. There are several individual high-fliers and families of orbiting objects, and you can use such websites as heavens-above.com, n2yo.com, and spaceweather.com/flybys/ to predict their paths with great accuracy. You need not do your homework, however. Anyone with decent night vision will see satellites jump out against the backdrop of stationary stars all night long, moving swiftly until they set below the horizon, enter Earth's shadow, or reorient their solar panels.

With a sturdy tripod and a camera that can do long exposures – and we're only talking 15 seconds or more – you can catch the trails of bright satellites from urban locations. If your timing is right, you might even try for a combination satellite/airplane flyover. With a long exposure, the satellite will produce a long, continuous light trail, while the flashing lights of the airplane will produce a bright dotted line.

The image above is one such example of a well-placed International Space Station (ISS) flyover, complete with the bright stars of the most famous asterism in the Northern Hemisphere – The Big Dipper. Thanks to the long exposure, it is even possible to see that some of the stars are slightly red-orange and not just pure white pinpoints of light. Thanks to some straightforward physics, we know that our photographer opened his shutter at 7:49:57 p.m. and closed it at 7:50:27 p.m., and we could have figured out the exact day and time from the recent orbits of the ISS even if we didn't know that the picture was taken on Oct. 12.

Your First Steps Outside:

The view looking south at 9:00 p.m. on November 15th (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of November).

NOTE: Daylight Saving Time ends at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 6th. Because of this, reported times for some month-long events listed below will be one hour earlier starting on the Nov. 6. To account for this difference, certain reported times below are in a [before the 6th]/[after the 6th] format, while other times correctly account for the time change.

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing between 8 p.m. and midnight throughout November anywhere in New York state. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

Mars and Terebellum help mark globular cluster M75.

Mars: Mars will follow the horizon close to [10]/[9] p.m. all month long before setting, sliding from the southwest to the west in the process. It remains the most accessible, although not the most prominent, planet in the skies this month. Starting October 30th, Mars and the faint globular cluster M75 will be in the same field of view of a pair of 10×50 binoculars. Closest approach will occur on the night of November 7th, although the Moon that night will not make your observation of M75 easy. You can use Mars and the four stars of the tiny, ancient asterism Terebellum to help orient yourself. For a refresher on globular clusters, check out the October article.

Saturn, Venus, and the Moon on November 2nd just after sunset.

Venus: Observers unimpressed with the recent temperature change can still get some early planetary viewing in. Venus remain unmistakable to the southwest soon after sunset, making an early exit from the night sky at the beginning of the month around [7:45]/[6:45] p.m. Thanks to our relative positions in our respective orbits, we'll even be gaining about one minute of additional Venus viewing each night. By month's end, Venus will set below the SW horizon just before 7:30 p.m.

Saturn: What we gain in Venus viewing we lose in Saturn viewing. Saturn has been setting just after Venus recently, but will hit the horizon at the same time on Nov. 2, when Venus, Saturn, and the very young waxing crescent moon make for a pleasant grouping. Catch this soon after sunset, as we lose the whole group to the horizon before 7:30 p.m. Chances to catch Saturn all but end by Nov. 15, when it sets just before 6 p.m.

The last good month for seeing the Summer Triangle.

The Summer Triangle: If it was not already apparent that we're not in Summer anymore, the Summer Triangle becomes the Summer Line in pre-midnight skies this month. Our summertime southern-pointing star Altair in the constellation Aquila now sets just north of due-West earlier and earlier this month, leaving Deneb in Cygnus and the brilliant Vega in Lyra. Vega itself will drop below the horizon before midnight by mid-month, marking the transition of Cygnus the Swan into what some refer to as the Northern Cross, with Cygnus now diving head-first into the horizon to leave its wings and back-end standing upright to the west/northwest. For a refresher on the Summer Triangle, see the August and September articles in this series.

The unmistakable Orion, rising before 11:00 p.m. this month, and neighboring constellations.

Orion, Taurus, And The Pleiades: Winter's best now make grand appearances before midnight, featuring the two closest open clusters to our Solar System. Unlike the dense globular clusters described in last month's article, open clusters contain only 10's to 100's of stars that are all gravitationally bound to one another. You can think of "open" here as referring to all of the open, dark space you can see between member stars. The Pleiades, the second-closest open star cluster to Earth, rises above the Eastern horizon after 7/6 p.m. in early November and comfortably before sunset by month's end. Following about an hour behind the Pleiades is the head of Taurus the Bull. The distinctive V-shaped head is composed of the bright red-orange star Aldebaran and "all the other" stars – this final collection of remaining notable-but-not-as-prominent stars are themselves called the Hyades and are the closest open star cluster to Earth. Contrary to some representations you might see, Aldebaran is not, in fact, a gravitationally-bound member of this cluster – it is much closer to Earth than the Hyades cluster and just happens to be placed in just the right spot to turn an otherwise less-impressive "checkmark" shape into a more distinctive "V" shape. Orion rises soon after Taurus and looks like a massive bowtie as it comes over the horizon. Only after it has fully cleared the horizon does it begin to take on the image of a human figure instead of human formal wear.

Early Riser Alert:

Jupiter: Jupiter rises above the Eastern horizon near 5:30 a.m. on Nov 1st and by 4:00 a.m. at month's end. Its four Galilean Moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – are all visible in low-power binoculars when Jupiter rises, but are washed out early by sunlight even before sunrise approaches. Jupiter and the very waning crescent moon will make a very nice pairing after 4:00 a.m. on November 25th. The next prominent change to the early morning sky will not occur until mid-February, when Saturn makes its reappearance in the sky after its November departure at sunset.

November Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York:

New York has a number of evenly-spaced astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host sessions throughout the year. Many of these sessions are free and open to the public, often close to the New Moon when skies are darkest and the chance for seeing deep, distant objects is greatest. These observers and facilities are the very best places to see the month's best objects using some of the best equipment, all while having very knowledgeable observers at your side to answer questions and guide discussion. Many of these organizations also hold monthly meetings, where seasoned amateurs can learn about recent news and discoveries from guest lecturers, and brand new observers are encouraged to join and begin the path towards seasoned amateur status.

Announced public sessions from several respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for November. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the website links or email the groups for directions, to find out about any fees, and to double-check about an event the day of the announced session. Also note that some groups will include weather-alternate dates for scheduled sessions.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingNov. 46:30 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingNov. 185:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyOctagon Barn Star Party & LectureNov. 47:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyStar Party at Grafton LakesNov. 47:30 – 11:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyStar Party at Landis ArboretumNov. 25, 268:00 – 10:00 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusPublic Viewing With Bob PiekielNov. 4/57:00 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"What is inside Jupiter?" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 47:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 56:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"High Performance Computing" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 117:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 126:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"Water from Rain" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 187:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 196:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"Black Holes on Black Friday" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 257:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 256:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 57:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 127:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 197:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 267:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website

ISS And Other Bright Flyovers:

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes per hour, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

The ISS this month is going to be an excellent morning target, but will not make any appearance in the evening sky until month's end. On the bright side, December will see several bright evening passes early in the month. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

ISS fly-bys

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart DirectionApprox. EndEnd Direction
11/1very7:08 AMSW7:14 AME/NE
11/2moderately6:16 AMSSW6:21 AME
11/3extremely6:59 AMW/SW7:06 AMNE
11/4very6:08 AMS/SW6:13 AME/NE
11/5very6:51 AMW6:57 AMNE
11/6extremely5:01 AMN5:04 AMNE
11/7very5:44 AMW/NW5:48 AMNE
11/8moderately4:53 AMN/NE4:55 AMNE
11/9moderately5:36 AMN/NW5:39 AMNE
11/10moderately4:45 AMN/NE4:46 AMNE
11/10moderately6:18 AMNW6:23 AMNE
11/11moderately5:27 AMN/NW5:30 AMNE
11/12moderately6:10 AMNW6:15 AME/NE
11/13moderately5:19 AMN5:22 AMNE
11/14moderately6:01 AMNW6:06 AME
11/15moderately5:10 AMN5:13 AME/NE
11/16very5:52 AMNW5:58 AME/SE
11/17very5:02 AMNNE5:05 AME
11/18extremely5:44 AMW/NW5:49 AMSE
11/19very4:54 AME4:56 AME/SE
11/19moderately6:27 AMW6:31 AMS
11/20very5:36 AMW/SW5:39 AMS/SE
11/21moderately4:46 AMSE4:47 AMSE
11/28somewhat6:24 PMS6:25 PMS
11/29somewhat7:06 PMSW7:07 PMSW
11/30very6:14 PMS/SW6:16 PMS/SE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com.

Moon:

Lunar Phases

New:First Quarter:Full:Third Quarter:New:
Oct. 30, 1:30 PMNov. 7, 2:51 PMNov. 14, 8:52 AMNov. 21, 3:33 AMNov. 29, 7:18 AM

The moon's increasing brightness as full moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the moon is a wonderful binocular object.

Meteor Showers: Leonids, Peaking Nov. 16-18

Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identity and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. In the case of the Leonids, the meteor shower radiant appears to be just within Leo the Lion's mane, which rises from the east after midnight this month. The meteor shower itself is provided to us by Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, whose 33-year orbit will return it to the inner solar system in 2031.

Leo rises in the very early morning this month. To fully orient yourself, look for a backward question mark (in green) that marks Leo's mane.

How to observe: The Leonids can be impressive and impressively bright, with up-to 15 meteors per hour expected. Sadly, the Moon will be prominent in the late-night/early-morning sky during the days around the Leonid peak, making for a far less impressive display.

Leo marks the position of the meteor shower radiant, meaning the meteors themselves will seem to shoot roughly from the east to the west. To optimize your experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed east and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you. Counts and brightness tend to increase the later you stay out, with peak observing times usually between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. The swarm of tiny particles is distributed broadly in orbit, meaning some people may see shooting stars associated with the Leonids during the middle and end of the month.

Learn A Constellation: Cygnus

The constellation Cygnus the Swan has reared its beak in the August and September articles, as its tail star Deneb is one of the corners of the Summer Triangle. If we imagine its wings fully expanded, the body of Cygnus happens to line up very well with the plane of the galaxy. When we look at the body and long neck, we're taking a look into the thicket of the spiral arm that is our nesting place in the Milky Way.

Cygnus and surroundings.

Cygnus is a prominent constellation in a busy part of the nighttime sky – but its placement right above us during prime summer observing hours makes binocular viewing a literal pain in the neck. As mid-autumn gives way to late autumn, Cygnus reaches the western sky during more reasonable observing hours, giving us a far more comfortable opportunity to explore this part of the galaxy.

The easiest way to find Cygnus is to search for the Summer Triangle itself – which for many eyes will mean finding the bright star Vega in Lyra the Harp first. For this, simply orient your head to the west/northwest, keeping in mind that the brilliantly bright Venus to the southwest will *not* be the star you're looking for in the early evening. With Vega and Lyra found, the distinctive cross shape should jump out at you to Vega's upper left. Deneb will be the bright east-pointing tip, followed by Sadr at the crossroads. Glenah and Rukh make up the joint in the wings, while Albireo marks the swan's head. Albireo is itself a pleasant big bino/telescope object, as it splits into two stars upon sufficient magnification, with one a pronounced red/orange and the other giving off a slight blue twinge to most eyes.

A distant view of tiny M29 (slooh.com) and a high-resolution view of M39.

For significant deep sky objects, we continue with the open cluster theme begun with the Hyades and Pleiades in Taurus the Bull. M29 is a small open cluster just to the left of Sadr – a dim object requiring magnification and eagle eyes to really take in. The open cluster M39 lies above Deneb. With Deneb in your sights, identify a bright triangle taking up much of the field of view of your binoculars. Use the star farthest from Deneb as an anchor to slide the binos up to search for a small grouping of dim stars.

Those with a keen imagination are welcome to take a gander just to the south of the star half-way between Sadr and Albireo. You won't be able to see it, but marked in the image above is the location of the first X-ray source ever classified as a black hole – the existence of which made for a long-running game of gravitational chicken between famed physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne. These two and other astrophysicists, as well as most progressive rock fans, know this object as Cygnus X-1.

Beyond M29, M39, a black hole, and its prime position along the Milky Way, you can add one more feather to the cap of Cygnus. The green squares in the image above mark the location where the NASA Kepler Mission undertook a multi-year survey for extrasolar planets, finding (so far) over 2,300 of the 3,200 confirmed extrasolar planets in our Milky Way – a search for which astronomers are just getting started. When you look to the northern wing of Cygnus, consider how many exoplanets this telescopic fox captured in only nearby stars, then consider how small a patch of the night sky this galactic hen house represents.

Damian G. Allis, Ph.D. is the director of CNY Observers (www.cnyo.org) and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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