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NIGHT SKIES

Looking east at 5:30 a.m. on November 10
Looking east at 5:30 a.m. on November 10

The stars of Cassiopeia
The stars of Cassiopeia

November 2004 night skies

Charlie Christmann

 

    The Crown Jewels

In the northern sky, opposite the Big Dipper, you can find a neat M or W (depending upon the time in the evening) circling Polaris. This striking zigzag of five stars marks the constellation Cassiopeia, the Queen of Ethiopia. In contrast to Sagittarius, which lies in the direction of the center of our galaxy, Cassiopeia looks toward the outer edges. There probably isn't a better location in the night sky to do some observing on a clear, crisp autumn night. If you own a pair of binoculars, this is an excellent part of the sky to scan.

In the neighboring constellation Perseus, you'll come across a faint blur of light which binoculars will readily reveal as two magnificent clusters of stars. To find this grouping, extend an imaginary line roughly one and a half times the distance from the star Gamma to the star Delta and beyond. With a small telescope using low power, you should be able to see a spectacular site simply known as the Double Cluster. It is indeed one of the most brilliant telescopic sights in the sky.

As long as you have your binoculars and telescope out, there are other fine clusters of stars intermingled within Cassiopeia. Concentrated in the area between the Delta and Epsilon stars is a beautiful field of stars that includes the galactic star cluster M103 as well as a couple of nearby smaller clusters.

Look for an extremely rich swarm of faint stars, known as NGC 7789, not too far to the west of the Beta star. Discovered in 1783 by Caroline Herschel, sister of the famous eighteenth-century astronomer William Herschel, it has been described as appearing like a large cloud of small stars on a ground of stardust. Admiral William H. Smyth (1788-1865) called it "a vast region of inexpressible splendor."

From this brief tour, it should be obvious that this crown of stars has many jewels worth exploring.

    Approaching Stellar Neighbors

In 1916, the American astronomer E. E. Barnard noted that an inconspicuous 9.5-magnitude red dwarf star in Ophiuchus was very unusual. Its motion through space was greater than that of any other star known. The star came to be known as Barnard's Star. At a distance of 5.9 light-years, it is the second closest star to our Sun (one light-year is 5.88 trillion miles). Barnard's Star is approaching rapidly at eighty-seven miles per second and will reach a minimum distance of less then four light-years in about eight thousand years.

Like other red dwarfs, Barnard's Star is not visible to the naked eye. It is a very cool and dim red dwarf with less than 17 percent of the Sun's mass and 15 percent of its diameter. If the Sun were replaced with Barnard's Star, it would only be about a hundred times as bright as our full moon, and the Earth would be a frozen wasteland. While the star may already be around ten billion years old, it should last another forty billion years or more before its fuel supply is exhausted and it cools into a black dwarf cinder.

Faintly visible with binoculars is another star, Gilese 710, heading in our direction at about fifty-two thousand miles per hour. Currently in the constellation Ophiuchus, it is about sixty-three light-years away. Though much farther away than Barnard's Star now, in about 1.1 million years it will be as close as one light-year. At that distance, there is some speculation that this star could actually graze our Oort Cloud, potentially causing problems for the inner solar system.

The Oort Cloud is thought to be a cloud of comets left over from the formation of our solar system. It has never been observed, but is thought to be approximately a thousand times farther from the Sun than Pluto. If this cloud were perturbed, it could send a storm of comets toward the Sun and Earth. Future inhabitants of the Earth may need to be concerned about the increased number of potentially hazardous objects near Earth.

Gilese 710 is a relatively dim orange-red or red dwarf star with only about half of the Sun's mass. Observations indicate that it may have an unseen stellar companion in a wide orbit. At its closest approach, Gilese 710 will shine at a magnitude of 0.6, rivaling the apparent brightness of the red giant Antares.

    Placitas Star Party

Join the Albuquerque Astronomical Society for a fascinating stargazing event. On November 6, members will set up an impressive array of telescopes from sundown until 10:00 p.m. at Homestead Village, 221 Highway 165. Come and enjoy the sights and learn more about the wonderful night sky.

    November Conjunctions

November 5, 9, and 10 offer a series of spectacular conjunctions between Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, and the star Spica on the east-southeastern horizon an hour before sunrise. The constellation Virgo hosts this show.

On November 5, look for Mars and Spica (Mars on the left) just above the horizon with Venus and Jupiter (Venus on the left) above them.

The Moon joins the Venus-Jupiter spectacular grouping on November 9.

And on November 10, the Moon moves to just above Spica, forming a magnificent celestial string of pearls. This will be worth getting up early to see.

    The Moon and Planets

  • Look for Venus early in the morning, rising in the east about 4:00 a.m. mid-month.
  • Mars rises a bit later in the morning. Look for it rising about 5:00 a.m. mid-month.
  • You will need to stay up late to find Jupiter. It rises about around 3:00 a.m. mid-month.
  • Saturn is the only evening planet, rising about 9:30 p.m. mid-month.
  • The Moon is exactly new at 7:27 p.m. on November 12 and perfectly full at 1:08 a.m. on November 26.

Charlie Christmann may be contacted by e-mail at sandovaldarksky@yahoo.com.

 

 

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