Although a keen proponent of random stargazing on a moonless night, I realise that unless you have a telescope of at least 8” and preferably more, you soon need to spend your time on a specific object to gain a real appreciation of the night sky. At the moment we have four celestial bodies visible to the naked eye that can be easily viewed with good-sized binoculars* for greater detail: the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. For the beginner observer, initial disappointment in what our eyes can actually see should be tempered with amazement at the distances light is travelling to enable such pinpricks to be visible. We have been thoroughly spoiled by the photos sent back by the Hubble telescope and other more advanced instruments since astrophotography began! *Mars is currently at its closest approach to Earth but remains an insignificant red dot except in the eyepiece of a monster telescope!
Jupiter and Saturn have been dancing across the sky as a pair for some time and are getting closer to each other this month. On 19 November, the crescent moon will form an attractive asterism with these two gas giants (visually!) – be sure to look out for it if the sky is clear, in the West at around 21h00 until they set. Jupiter is the brighter of the two, being much closer (628m to 928m km from Earth) and is my favourite planet. Noting the movement of its 4 major moons, Io, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede, provides purpose to your observing and a simple notebook with childlike drawings of a circle and four dots will match the observations of the great Galileo Galilei, who kept just such a record to come to all sorts of conclusions in the early days of astronomy. The photos below, taken by me with a hand-held camera, do no justice to the real thing, but are posted here to demonstrate the interesting configurations of the moons as they rotate around Jupiter. A Jovian day is less than 10 hours, hence the movement of the moons is observable during an evening’s viewing.
Other noteworthy planet/moon events in November are:
12th Venus near crescent moon before sunrise
26th Mars near the moon.
Observing the night sky can become a rewarding and relaxing hobby, and for insomniacs can while away quite a few hours – this is how it all began for me. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere there is the added advantage of having more deep sky objects to observe than are found in the Northern Hemisphere, but trips into the country where there is no light pollution will have to be made if you want to see them at their best. It doesn’t need much of an excuse for a trip into the country!