Backyard Astronomy

Clear November night skies offer several good reasons for bundling up and spending some time stargazing, even when it’s from your backyard. For early morning risers, Comet ISON should reach naked eye brightness toward the end of this month, but until then its visible in small telescopes low in the east-southeast sky before sunrise. ISON passes closest to the Sun on November 28 and is expected to become as bright as the planet Venus.

ISONNov20If you’re having trouble seeing ISON, try looking for the ring planet Saturn, along with the closest planet to the Sun – Mercury, near the horizon. Saturn is a pale, yellowish object that will rise higher in the early morning sky beginning in December and a sight not to be missed if you’re out before sunrise. But the solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, is a much easier object to locate primarily because it,s big and bright – visible in the east shortly after 8 pm. and high overhead by midnight; it’s the brightest object in the eastern sky. Even throiugh a pair of binoculars, you should be able to observe its four brightest moons and from night to night notice that these tiny moons change position as they orbit Jupiter.
A must see object in the eastern evening fall and winter night sky is the Pleiades star cluster, easily visible even in an urban setting without any optical aid. The cluster is located in the constellation Taurus the Bull and is best when seen through a pair of binoculars.

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Fall and early winter skies are usually clear and less humid, making backyard observing very rewarding, even without binoculars.

Spot a Nova in the Sky Tonight!

Alert! A nova has been discovered in the constellation Delphinus the Dolphin and it’s getting brighter each day! Novae visible to human eyes only happen once or twice every ten years. This nova can’t be seen with the naked eye yet, but we think it might be soon. delphinus

Two days ago (August 14th) an amateur astronomer named Koichi Itagaki discovered the nova in the constellation Delphinus the Dolphin. Since then, the nova has increased in brightness almost exponentially. Although it isn’t quite visible to the naked eye just yet, it is easily found through binoculars. It is quite possible that its brightness could increase even more in the next few days.

To see the nova, you’ll need a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Locate the Summer Triangle high over head after sunset. Delphinus is a small parallelogram of stars to the lower left of the triangle. The nova is about two thirds the distance between Delphinus and the edge of the triangle.

What is a nova? The name comes from the Latin word for “new”, because novae seem to be “new stars” that appear in the sky suddenly. This is not actually the case, however. Novae are not to be confused with supernovae. Supernovae are huge explosions that occur when a large star ends its life cycle.

A nova is a sudden increase in brightness in an existing star. One cause of this occurs in a binary system (two stars orbiting each other closely). Sometimes matter will transfer from one star to the other, causing a flareup. Imagine pouring gasoline on a fire.

If you are unable to spot the nova from your backyard, check out the video below from space.com; it shows live footage of the nova taken from the Canary Islands last night.