By David Ward
A crisp fall evening is the perfect time to venture out under the stars before it gets really cold this winter. Do not forget to wear a jacket and turn off the porch light to see the most stars above.
High in the northeast, one of the most familiar of all the constellations is on display — Cassiopeia, the Queen. Look for an “M” of fairly bright stars just opposite the Big Dipper much lower in the north.
Cassiopeia and her husband, Cepheus, were king and queen of the ancient kingdom Aethiopia on the coast of northern Africa. She was beautiful but boastful, an attribute not appreciated by the gods. Poseidon, god of the sea, was really irritated when she claimed to be more beautiful than his stunningly gorgeous sea nymphs, the Nereids, 50 watery sisters who accompanied the sea god on his oceanic voyages.
In retaliation, Poseidon sent a terrifying sea monster to ravage her kingdom. Not knowing what to do about the destruction, the queen consulted an oracle who advised sacrificing her daughter to the creature. The gods did not like that idea either, and now Cassiopeia is doomed to circle the North Star in her throne at times having to hold on for dear life when she is turned upside down in her nightly travels.
Look closely at the constellation and you should see a dimmer star in the western point of the M that turns it into a chair, the queen’s throne. Both her husband and daughter are there in the stars also, nearby the disgraced queen.
Maybe you can see the Milky Way passing right through Cassiopeia on a dark clear night. If so look just northeast of the queen for a little fuzzy spot. Binoculars will show it to be two groups of stars, the Double Cluster in the constellation Perseus.
Lower in the northeast, the bright star Capella will be furiously twinkling close to the horizon. Although to us it just appears to be a single star, it is actually four stars in one. Two bright giant stars orbit each other barely half the distance from Earth to the sun. Then very far from those two, another pair of dim red dwarf stars swing around the inner two in a lazy orbit that takes centuries.
November is a great month for shooting stars if the moon is not too bright. Two showers from the constellation Taurus provide a slow but steady stream of meteors for most of the month. Even though there is not a lot of them, they produce some of the most spectacular fireballs.
One of the brightest meteors I have ever seen was from the Taurus shower. My wife and I were driving across the pitch-black Nevada desert late one night after putting on a stargazing program when a blazing meteor streaked across the sky right in front of us. It was blindingly bright and actually lit up the desert for a few moments.
Also in November, the famous Leonid meteor shower peaks on the Nov. 17. They are known to sometimes come up with the most intense meteor storms ever seen from Earth. Every 30 years or so they go crazy with thousands of shooting stars a minute. Nothing as astonishing as that is predicted for this month, but you never know. I am going to keep an eye out just in case.
See that really bright star low in the west just before it gets dark? Actually it is not a star at all but the planet Venus. She will be hanging around low in the western twilight sky all winter. If you have a small telescope, check out how Venus goes through phases just like the moon. If you look at it this month, it will have a small gibbous shape, almost round. Later in the winter it will be half-lit just like a quarter moon. Just before it disappears in March, the planet will be closest to us and have a distinct crescent shape. The only other planet that goes through phases is Mercury. Why Mercury and Venus? They are the two planets between us and the sun.
If you are lucky you may still be able to see Mars, also low in the western twilight sky, but it may be hard to pick out in the sunset glare.
Just when you thought you might possibly be able to sort of somehow grasp the immensity of the universe, astronomers have forced us to stretch our imaginations even further. Now they are saying that it is all 20 times bigger than previously thought. So try to wrap your head around that the next time you are out gazing up at the stars above.