Monday, November 01, 2004

A Season of Long Nights

A Season of Long Nights
by Dave Adalian

As autumn ripens after the October rains and fog, a season of long nights begins. Day turns to evening during the dinner hour and skies darken early for digestive strolls spent wandering with the stars.

With no moon this week, nights will be dark and starry. Walkers will notice the Summer Triangle of Vega, Altair and Deneb still riding high in the west after sundown, while at the same time, the Great Square of Pegasus shines in the east. Already well up in the sky, by the end of the month the Square will be overhead just after dusk, a telltale of the coming of winter.

Alpheratz, the star marking the northeast corner of the Great Square, is actually the brightest in the constellation Andromeda. This willowy arrangement of stars represents a celestial princess awaiting rescue by Perseus, the Greek hero who slew Medusa. Not far to the northeast of Alpheratz, look closely to find the faint wisp of that is the Great Andromeda Galaxy, one of the Milky Way’s closest neighbors at only 2.9 million light years distant. It is the farthest object that can be seen by the unaided eye.

The constellation Perseus itself lies farther to the northeast of Andromeda, a riot of stars sitting just below the W of Andromeda’s mother Cassiopeia. Below it and to the right are the wonders of Taurus the Bull discussed here last month--the Pleiades, the Hyades and the bright red giant star Aldebaran.

The Moon returns to the early evening sky in mid-month, appearing briefly as a thin crescent in the southwest the nights of Nov. 15 and 16, when it will sit in Sagittarius.

Each month the Moon traipses through the Zodiac, rising earlier night to night and making the stars seem faint by comparison as it brightens. By Nov. 17 Luna is amid the dim stars of Capricornus, the Sea Goat. Two nights later it’s well into Aquarius, the Water Barer, and on Nov. 22 it swims with the fishes of Pisces.

By Nov. 24, the almost full Moon sits in Aries the Ram, a group of dim stars remembered because of its association with astrology. Aries’ three brightest stars, representing the ram’s horns of plenty, sit directly above the Moon this night before Thanksgiving.

The Moon is in Taurus when full two nights later, then finishes the month with the twins of Gemini, rising just after dark.


This column appeared originally in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta in November 2004.