Eye on the Night Sky above Whitby

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Planetary Skylights

There is little notable planetary action in the evening sky during November. Mars continues in its race to outrun the Sun and the horizon, lingering just above the SW horizon for an hour after sunset. On the 25th and 26th it is joined by a crescent moon.

By mid-month, conspicuous Jupiter is rising before midnight and is on view by 10pm at the month’s end across in the east. However as far as practical telescopic observations are concerned it really should still be classed as a morning object.

By dawn Jupiter rides high to the SSW and is quite unmistakable residing just ahead of the asterism known as the ‘sickle’ in Leo and its chief star Regulus.

The Moon lies nearby on the 14th and 15th.

The planetary highlight of the month will be the continued morning apparition of the innermost planet; elusive Mercury. Look for it across in the ESE from the 1st until 20th around 45 minutes before sunrise.

Mercury will be highest at the start of November; a very respectable 10 degrees above the horizon and after a little searching should be readily apparent to the naked eye.

As the month progresses Mercury will drop back toward the horizon getting brighter as it does so. Perhaps the optimum dates will be 12th to the 15th. Use binoculars if you cannot initially spot it.

The Leonids are active from November 15-20th peaking this year during the very late evening of November 17, which means the early morning of the 18th will be the optimum time to view.

Observed rates will be normal for a ‘non storm’ year, so expect to view around 7-12 per hour.

The next Leonid ‘storm’ is not due until 2030 at the earliest.

Also during November keep an eye out for a few meteors on the night of Nov 4/5th when the South Taurid meteor shower reaches a peak, and then again on the night of Nov 11/12 when the North Taurid meteor shower peaks.

The hourly rate is low - only around five meteors, but although few, Taurids are often very bright with occasional fireballs.

The Taurids are an old shower, associated with Comet Enke, which has a period of just 3.3 years.

Over time dust from this comet has been depleted and spread out over a broad swathe of the inner solar system, giving rise to Taurid meteor showers not only on Earth but also on Mars and Venus too.

If everything goes according to plan, one of the highlights of the year for space related matters will unfold on November 12.

After a 10-year odyssey around the inner part of the solar system the Rosetta spacecraft will jettison its lander probe:- Philae, to make its descent and land on a comet, the first probe to do so.

Built and launched by the European Space Agency in 2004 to perform a detailed study of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, (yes I know it’s a bit of a mouthful) Rosetta finally reached the comet on August 6, becoming the first craft to orbit a comet.

En route the spacecraft has already performed two asteroid flyby missions;- asteroid 2867 Šteins in September 2008 and 21 Lutetia in July 2010. Rosetta has also flown by Mars, returning images.

On 20 January 2014, Rosetta was taken out of a 31-month hibernation mode and continued towards the comet.

Rosetta mission will deploy its lander, Philae, to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November, and if all goes well, it will land on the smaller of the two comet ‘lobes’.

Comets are remnants of the Solar System’s 4.6 billion-year history, and are thought to have played a crucial role in delivering water to the early Earth (that’s the theory)

Rosetta has, and will conduct unprecedented scientific analysis of the comet; the latest results of which will be presented on the occasion of the landing, during dedicated press briefings.

Rosetta will release Philae at 08:35 GMT at a distance of 22.5 km from the centre of the comet, landing about seven hours later. Confirmation of the landing will arrive at Earth ground stations at around 16:00 GMT

The Rosetta orbiter will continue to study the comet and its environment as they orbit the Sun together.

The comet is on an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany the comet for more than a year as they swing around the Sun and back to the outer Solar System again.

Keep tabs across the media and Fingers crossed, it may have not seem to have the momentous allure of a lunar or planetary landing, but the science and findings learned may be far more significant.

Look to east during a November evening and you may notice not far above the horizon what resembles a small frosty, beaded web; the seven sisters or Pleiades star cluster, more on which shortly.

Upper right of the Pleiades a crooked line of three stars denote Aries the ram, of which the associated legend is a prequel to one of the better known celestial tales.

The initial tale relates to the king of Thebes, who was tricked by his scheming second wife into sacrificing the children of his first marriage.

Zeus, who was much troubled by this, asked Hermes to rescue the children- Phrixus and Hellas.

Hermes sent a flying ram on which they escaped on the night of their sacrifice.

Tragically en-route to safety, Hellas;- the girl, fell from the ram and drowned in the place that is today known as the Hellespont near Greece.

After safely landing Phrixus sacrificed the ram, whereupon its fleece turned to gold, possessing the power to heal anyone covered by it. It is this very same fleece, hung in the sacred grove of Colchis and guarded by a terrible serpent that was forcibly removed after many adventures by Jason and his Argonauts.

And, so to the Pleiades, regarded by many as the finest naked eye star cluster in the heavens and estimated to be only around 80 million years old.

Most observers can make out five or six stars with the naked eye, binoculars reveal dozens and the entire cluster contains almost 200 members some 400 light years distant.

Revered throughout antiquity, in Greek mythology the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas and the Oceanid Pleione, after whom they are named. In one myth Orion pursued the sisters for seven years after trying to ravish both them and their mother.

Zeus immortalized the chase by placing the Pleiades in the heavens.

However in another tale Zeus himself seduced three of the sisters.

From Aztec and Mayan tradition however, all too real and gruesome events were associated with the midnight culmination of the Pleiades; an event of ominous significance, especially so every 52 years when time lines of separate calendars converged.

Believing the world would end at such times, temple steps would run red with the blood of sacrificial virgins in a bid to postpone the approaching apocalypse.

In Mexico, many sacred temple pyramids have their west face orientated to the setting position of the Pleiades.

Even as late as the 13th Century a sinister influence was first attributed to the Pleiades, when the midnight culmination became the traditional date of the fearsome witches Sabbath or Black Sabbat, a night of unholy revelry, a date that preserves the memory of ancient druids rites, observed today as All Hallows eve – Halloween .... and it looks so pretty.

Clear skies – and don’t have nightmares!