The clocks have changed and the sun now sets at around 4:00 pm to give us long dark nights for stargazing. The Summer Triangle, which we have been using for navigation is disappearing from view, but the Great Square of Pegasus is now in the southern sky for us instead to find the constellations that lie around it, many of which have names with watery connections. Many of the planets are visible to the naked eye, with Venus shining particularly bright because it reached its furthest point from the Sun on 29 October. Finally, you may be able to spot shooting stars produced as a steady stream from the Taurid meteor showers in the first part of the month, while there is also the possibility of spotting some from the Leonids meteor shower which peaks on the morning of November 17.
Following the clock change at end of October, the sun now sets at around 4:00 pm, meaning that the stars and constellations start to become visible from about 17:30 pm onwards. During the previous three months we have been watching the Milky Way get lower and lower in the southern night sky and you may have noticed the constellations in the south getting dimmer. This is because the position of the Earth is now such that we are looking out of the plane of our galaxy and into the rest of the universe. However, the Milky Way has not gone altogether, and you can see it over in the west along with the Summer Triangle of the three bright stars of Vega, Altair and Deneb, which we have been using to navigate our way around the night sky in previous months.
The constellation of Pegasus represents the Flying Horse of Greek mythology and the Square marks the horse’s body. You may find it difficult to make out the horse because it is upside down and the constellation represents only the top half of its body and its head. However, you may be able to pick out Enif, the constellation’s brightest star which is below and to the right of the Square and Altair. Enif is an orange supergiant star that is 5,000 times brighter than the Sun and it represents the horse’s nose.
If you follow the diagonal down from the top left of the Square to beyond its bottom right star, you’ll come to a faint group of stars known as the Water Jar of Aquarius. It is an asterism formed by four relatively bright stars in the constellation of Aquarius (the Water-Carrier). It is easily recognised by its arrow shape, which looks a bit like a fighter plane with swept wings. Though it’s not the brightest part of Aquarius, it’s a good pattern that helps you to find its other stars.
From the top left edge of the Square stretches a line of stars in the constellation of Andromeda, which is named after Andromeda, daughter of Cassiopeia, in the Greek myth, who was chained to a rock to be eaten by the sea monster Cetus. It is the home of the Andromeda Galaxy which, at approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth, is the nearest spiral galaxy to our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It is also the most distant object that you are likely to see without an optical aid but if you can’t find it with the naked eye, then use binoculars through and look for a little oval blur.
Below Andromeda and to the left of Pegasus is where you will find the constellation of Pisces (the Fishes). It is very faint and difficult to see, so the best way to find it is to look directly below the Square of Pegasus for the Circlet of Pisces, which is a pentagonal asterism of 5 stars that marks the head of the Western Fish. Once you’ve found the it, go on from there to catch the Eastern Fish that’s jumping upward to the east of the Square of Pegasus. The entire constellation looks like the letter V.
Below Pisces is the constellation of Cetus, the Sea Monster which in Greek mythology both Perseus and Heracles needed to slay. You’ll find its tail marked by a fairly bright star called Diphda located low down in the sky, almost directly below the left-hand edge of the Square of Pegasus, while further over to the left and up a little, you’ll find Menkar, a reasonably bright star that marks its head.
You may have noticed that all the constellations in this part of the sky have watery connections. It is said that this is because the Sun travelled through these constellations during the wet season in ancient Mesopotamia, which was from November to March, and flooding was a major problem. Many of our constellations date from that location and time.
Finally, to the east of the Square is Aries, the Ram, whose three main stars form an easily recognised triangle, and another more regular triangle, actually called Tringulum, the Triangle, which contains the nearby galaxy M33. This will be visible with binoculars if you have a reasonably dark sky.
If you look north, you’ll see the same stars as you would in any other month, except that their orientation varies. This month the familiar Plough asterism, which many people will recognise, is low down in the north at the moment with its rectangular end almost directly below Polaris, the Pole Star. If you look over to the north-east you can see Capella. It is a yellow giant star, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer), the sixth-brightest star in the night sky, and the third-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega.
At the very start of the month, we are close to a new Moon (no Moon) as this occurs on 4 November and if it’s clear a couple of nights later, on 6 November, you will find the slightest of crescent Moons setting in the south west at around 4:30 pm. However, it may be difficult to see the Moon on that evening as it will be lying close to where the sun has set. You'll probably find it easier to see it on the following evenings of 7 November and 8 November as it will have moved slightly to the left and will be sitting further from the sun. It will also be next to a bright shining Venus on these two evenings.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 11 November, and it will be sitting beneath Jupiter, low down on the southern horizon.
There is a partial eclipse of the Moon on 19 November, but it takes place just before sunrise, when the Moon will be low down in the north-west. This means that will need to be quite far west and north in the UK to see anything of it. If you are, then you may see the dark part of the Earth’s shadow starting to move onto the Moon at 7:18 am.
This month’s full Moon is called the Beaver Moon and there is disagreement over the origin this name. Some say it comes from Native Americans setting beaver traps during this month, while others say the name comes from the heavy activity of beavers building their winter dams. It is also known as the Frosty Moon, and along with the December Full Moon some called it the Oak Moon. Traditionally, if the Beaver Moon is the last Full Moon before the winter solstice, it is also called the Mourning Moon.
When it is getting dark, you may be able to spot Venus hanging low down on the western horizon just before it sets at around 5:30pm. It is shining brightly because it reached Elongation, its furthest point from the Sun, on 29 October and will take a few weeks to move away and become less bright as it does so.
Well to the left of Venus, in the south, you will find Jupiter, a gas giant that is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest our Solar System. It is the second brightest planet in our night sky at the moment and to the right of it is a fainter Saturn. Saturn, another gas giant, is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in our Solar System. Saturn sets in the south west at around 9:30 pm and Jupiter at about 11:00 pm. If you use binoculars or a telescope you will be able to see Jupiter’s four bright moons and Saturn’s rings.
Neptune will be above the horizon until about 1:30 am and you will find it to the left of Jupiter in Aquarius. However, it will be very dim and therefore difficult to see, even with binoculars or a telescope. Its near twin in size, Uranus, can be found above the horizon all night long, over to the east in Aries. It reaches opposition on 5 November, when it will be at its closest to Earth this year at 1,742 million miles away. Even so, it is only just visible to the naked eye and will be difficult to distinguish from the stars. It will be better to look for it with binoculars night after night and spot it moving against the background of stars.
Last month was the best month of the year to see Mercury because it reached its maximum separation (elongation) from the Sun on 25 October, so in the first part of this month you will still be able to see it in the south-east sky just before sunrise.
Mars is too close to the Sun to be visible this month.
During the first part of the month there South or North Taurid meteor showers, which unlike other meteor showers, don’t have strong peaks but instead have “staying power” and produce a steady stream of meteors over a number of weeks. The South Taurids are active from about September 10 to November 20, while the North Taurids are active from about October 20 to December 10. They both produce a steady stream of about 5 meteors/hour and because they overlap up until the 20 November, you can expect to see up to 10 meteors/hour during the first 3 weeks of the month. However, the best time to look for them will be at the start of the month, a few days either side of the new Moon on 4 November when there will be little or no moonlight to drown them out.
We also have the Leonid meteor shower this month and it is known for periodic storms of historic proportions, when shooting stars fall like rain. While no storm is predicted for the 2021 Leonids, you can still catch plenty of meteors between 6 November and 30 November. The meteor shower peaks the morning of November 17 but unfortunately, this is two days before a full moon, meaning that the Moon will hang around for most the night, brightening the sky and washing out many of the meteors. However, as the Leonid meteors can appear in huge numbers, do keep an eye out for them from about 10:30 pm, which is when the radiant point rises above the horizon. You never know, you might spot some.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.