November and December Stargazing
November marks the transition from autumn skies to winter skies. We still have the faint glow of our galaxy, the Milky Way, overhead after it gets dark, but the winter constellations rise in the east as soon as it’s fully dark.
The very bright ‘star’ blazing above the southeastern horizon is the planet Jupiter. If you have a telescope, or binoculars that magnify by 8x or more, have a look at Jupiter: you may be able to spot up to four of its 80+ moons.
Above and to the left of Jupiter, almost overhead, there is a group of bright stars – try these with binoculars and you’ll see what looks like someone has spilled diamonds onto black velvet. It’s called the “Alpha Persei Moving Cluster”; Alpha Persei is the brightest star in the group, and the cluster is called “moving” because all its stars move through space together, not that you’ll see them move: they’ll take more than a hundred thousand years to move the width of your little finger on an outstretched arm!
Next, turn your binoculars onto the little group of stars that you’ll find below and to the right of the Alpha Persei Cluster. You’ll see that it resolves into twenty or more stars, and the higher in the sky it gets, the more you’ll see. This is the famous Pleiades or “Seven Sisters” star cluster.
As we move into December, you might notice the number of meteors (shooting stars) gradually increasing. We are approaching the peak of the most reliable of the annual meteor showers, the Geminids, on the night of the 13th and 14th.
You don’t need any special equipment: meteor observing is best done with your naked eye. You’re going to be looking high in the sky, so some sort of garden recliner is an ideal base, and make sure you have a blanket or sleeping bag to keep yourself warm. Use a dim red light to preserve your night vision (nail-varnish or a red sweet wrapper on an ordinary torch works just fine).
The meteors (shooting stars) appear to come from a spot in the constellation of Gemini, but that is the direction you don’t want to look: any you see from that direction will be coming almost head-on towards you, so will have very short trails. The best place to look is near the zenith (the point directly overhead) because it is here that the sky is most transparent and furthest from light pollution on the horizon, so you will be able to see fainter meteors.
‘Geminid parties’ are a great way to enjoy the show. Enjoy it with a few family and friends, along with flasks of warm drinks and cake or biscuits to keep yourselves both warm and social. If you sit around in a circle, everyone will be looking at a slightly different bit of sky, so that you can share and compare.
If you want to see this and other delights of the starry heavens, come along to one of our stargazing evenings and find much more to enjoy!
Find out more about Dark Night Skies on Cranborne Chase National Landscape.