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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17,500 Years In The Making – A Small Contribution To The 3rd Edition Of "Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography"

Above: One of my all-time favorite images – a mural within the Lascaux Caves, possibly depicting three (now) prominent asterisms in the nighttime skies of winter.

I had been forwarded along a link from the now-defunct spacetoday.org site back in '08 or '09 about a possibly astronomical origin to one particular wall painting within the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Someone, either in an expedition or with photos from the documentation, must have had some amateur astronomy background (because most professional astronomers only enter caves when they’re obtaining data) and noticed that the groupings of stars on either side of one connect-the-dots now-extinct auroch (note the timing here – the bull is, astronomically-speaking, a later invention) had the right placement – and nearly the right counts – to maybe, kinda, sorta, possibly be as if someone had drawn the Orion Belt stars (and their collective +1) and a 25x zoom of our second-closest open cluster – the Pleiades (M45) – on either side of a cluster of black dots on an auroch’s head that could represent our closest open cluster – the Hyades.

This type of ancient astronomy history sticks *hard* in my brain, leading to the usual scouring of information online for other reports, images, refutations, etc. This then lead to my including the story way back in a November, 2009 constellation-of-the-month article for the SAS's Astronomical Chronicle and, with clarifying image, in the December 2016 article of the short-lived Upstate New York Stargazing series.

For someone wanting the unmodified image from the mural, there remains a high-res download available from baerchen3.wp.com.

It should come as no surprise that our ancestors would want to take the most mystical part of their day – the night – inside with them. There is no shortage of civilizations combining small clusters of stars in the sky with fantastical stories (see: the Northern Constellations), and seeing patterns in otherwise random visuals has probably been a solid feature in our brains far longer than any crafted image we’re likely to find buried in any ancient community (see: Pareidolia).

Above: A screencap of the relevant image and associated star chart from "Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography." Click for a larger view.

If, in fact, this mural was intended to represent the arrangement of what we know as Orion’s Belt, what we know as Taurus the Bull, and what we now call the Pleiades, it raises a host of questions. Is there somehow a direct, herd-migratory line from this cave painting to the walls of Babylon and into early western mythology? Was there a single painter? Was the head or were the stars painted first? If more than one person did it, same question – did someone add the stars to a head, or add the head to the stars? If we looked hard enough on either side of the current belt in the nighttime sky, would we see remnants of a far distant supernova in the background that might have appeared to the cave dwellers as a new, bright fourth star? Alternatively, how much trouble did Ukleois (remember, he’s French) get into by adding the fourth star to the Belt? Did the painter, intending to remove the fourth star after admonishing Ukle-çois for his vandalism, die in a violent way during the morning hunt for breakfast, leaving the fourth star there for all time? Is the right-most or the left-most fourth star the wrong one? Did anyone take fingerprints of these two stars to see which was different from the middle two to know which was the unwanted addition? Was the painting a deep thought of artistic expression by Jean-Ukle that should be deeply read into as a marker of Paleolithic human endeavor, or was it a particularly miserable rainy Tuesday night and Jean-Ukle was simply lamenting not being able to enjoy a bucolic moonlight stroll by spending the evening instead scribbling on a flat piece of cave while getting mildly blotto from the carbon monoxide?

We may never have the answers to these questions.

In the meantime, I have ended up contributing to the astronomical literature in the tiniest of ways to this earliest of anti-memes (because it did not come to you – you had to go to it) in the newly printed 3rd Edition of Nick Kanas’ excellent (e)book “Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography,“ available at amazon and wherever fine Springer Praxis books are sold.

He’s a fellow amateur astronomer, so I liked him already. Additionally (from the amazon bio)…

Dr. Nick Kanas is an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, where he directed the group therapy training program and wrote a book entitled Group Therapy for Schizophrenic Patients. For over 20 years, he conducted research in group therapy, and for over 15 years after that he was the Principal Investigator of NASA-funded psychological research on astronauts and cosmonauts. In 1999, Dr. Kanas received the Aerospace Medical Association Raymond F. Longacre Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in the Psychological and Psychiatric Aspects of Aerospace Medicine. In 2008, he received the International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Award. He has over 230 scientific publications.

Dr. Kanas is the coauthor of Space Psychology and Psychiatry (now in its 2nd edition), which won the 2004 International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Book Award. In 2015, he authored Humans in Space: The Psychological Hurdles, which won the 2016 International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Book Award. 

Dr. Kanas has been an amateur astronomer for over 50 years. He has collected antiquarian celestial maps for over 30 years and has given talks on the history of celestial cartography to amateur and professional groups.  He is the author of Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography (now in its 2nd edition), and Solar System Maps: From Antiquity to the Space Age. An avid science fiction reader, Dr. Kanas has given talks and participated on panels at numerous World Science Fiction Conventions. He has published articles for Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine and won the Analog AnLab 2015 readers’ poll award for Best Fact Article of the year. He has published three science fiction novels for the Springer Science and Fiction series: The New Martians, The Protos Mandate, and The Caloris Network. Except for his group therapy book, all of his books are published by Springer.

Check his website (nickkanas.com), follow him on twitter (@nick_kanas), give a listen to an interview on The Space Show (and subscribe and support it, as it is excellent), and go buy a copy of the book.