After several months without any bright planets in the evening sky, we now start to see the majestic planet Saturn rising soon after sunset, low in the east-northeast.
This planet has been in conjunction with the sun during the summertime and so has not been visible in the night-time sky. Now, through a powerful pair of binoculars, or a small telescope with a magnification of 15-20x, even Saturn’s rings have become visible.
Right at this moment, a large space probe called Cassini is in orbit around Saturn. It reached the planet in July of this year, after a six-year journey. The Cassini probe is now taking some of the best close-up pictures of the ringed planet ever seen, but the very best is yet to come because Cassini carries an entry capsule to land on the giant moon of Saturn, called Titan. This moon’s surface is a mystery as it is covered in a dense dark atmosphere, but, on January 14 2005, the capsule will soft land on Titan and finally discover what lies on the dark, cold surface of this giant moon.
Just before daybreak in the east, during the first week of November, two brilliant planets are close together in the constellation of Virgo. This will be spectacular, as the planets involved are Jupiter and Venus – the brightest in the sky at this time. The thin crescent moon will be close to them on the morning of November 9.
This is also a month with two meteor showers – the Taurids during the first week and the Leonids on the night of November 17. This year, we can expect around one ‘shooting star’ every 15 minutes or so.
We can also just see, at this time of the year, the constellation of Ursa Major, or the Plough, as it is commonly known, low in the northern sky. It skims the horizon at sunset, but from further north, for example the UK, this constellation is well clear on the horizon, demonstrating the fact that the earth really is round!
The grand constellation of Orion is also on display this month, rising in the east during the evenings. This constellation is on the equator of the sky and is visible from all over the world at this time of the year.
The moon is at last quarter on November 5, new moon on November 12, the first quarter is on November 19 and a full moon on November 26.
• Clive Jackson is the director of the Astronomical Observatory and the Torre de Tavira Camera Obscura of Tavira, specialising in education and public outreach. Tel: 281 321 754, Fax: 281 324 688, email: [email protected] – www.cdepa.pt