Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand

The Evening Sky in November

Download a PDF containing this chart, additional charts for specific areas of the sky and descriptions of interesting objects visible at this time of year.

Jupiter is the 'evening star', appearing north of overhead soon after sunset. As the sky darkens Saturn appears northwest of the zenith. Sirius, the brightest true star, rises a little south of due east. By the end of the month it is up at sunset. Canopus, the second-brightest star, is in the southeast. Both stars twinkle like diamonds as the air disperses their white light.

At the beginning of the month Mars rises in the northeast before midnight. It is orange-red and brighter than Sirius. In the late night sky it is the second-brightest 'star' after Jupiter. It rises earlier each night. By the end of November it appears around 9:30 NZDT.

The disk of Jupiter can be seen in binoculars along with one or two of its big moons close by. Any telescope will show all four moons, the ones discovered by Galileo in 1610. The ring of Saturn is also visible in a small telescope along with Saturn's biggest moon Titan, close to the planet. Mars is small in a telescope, appearing the same size as the globe of Saturn. The Moon will be near Saturn on the 2nd; near Jupiter on the 4th and 5th, and near Mars on the night of 11-12th.

Left of Sirius is the constellation of Orion, with 'The Pot' at its centre. Rigel, a bluish supergiant star, is directly above the line of three stars; Betelgeuse, a red-giant star, is straight below. Left again is orange Aldebaran. It is at one tip of a triangular group called the Hyades cluster. The Hyades and Aldebaran make the upside down face of Taurus the bull. Still further left is the Pleiades or Matariki star cluster, also called the Seven Sisters, Subaru and many other names. Six stars are visible to most eyes. Dozens are seen in binoculars. The cluster is 440 light years (l.y.)* away and around 100 million years old.

Sirius is the brightest star both because it is relatively close, nine l.y. away. Seen up close it would be 23 times brighter than the sun. By contrast, Canopus is 300 l.y. away and 13 000 times brighter than the sun.

The Milky Way is low in the sky, visible around the horizon from the northwest, through south into the eastern sky. The broadest, brightest part is in Sagittarius, to the right of the Scorpion's sting. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the Sun is just one. The thick hub of the galaxy is 27 000 light years away in the direction of Sagittarius.

Low in the south are the Pointers, Beta and Alpha Centauri, and Crux the Southern Cross. In some Maori star lore the bright southern Milky Way makes the canoe of Maui with Crux being the canoe's anchor hanging off the side. In this picture the Scorpion's tail can be the canoe's prow and the Clouds of Magellan are the sails. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star; 4.3 light years away.

The Clouds of Magellan, (LMC and SMC), high in the southern sky, are two small galaxies about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away, respectively. They are easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. The globular star cluster 47 Tucanae looks like a slightly fuzzy star near the top-right edge of the SMC. It is 'only' 16 000 light years away and merely on the line of sight to the SMC. Globular clusters are spherical clouds of stars many billions of years old.

Very low in the north is the Andromeda Galaxy, easily seen in binoculars in a dark sky and faintly visible to the eye. It appears as a spindle of light. It is similar to our galaxy and nearly three million light years away.

A total eclipse of the Moon occurs on the night of the 8-9th. The Moon begins to enter the outer part of Earth's shadow, the penumbra, at 9:02 NZDT. It won't show much darkening till it starts to enter the inner shadow, the umbra, at 10:09. By 11:17 the Moon will be completely in the umbra. Just how dark it gets depends on how much sunlight is bent around the Earth by the air. If a lot is, then the Moon will glow red, a 'blood Moon'. If there is much cloud around the Earth's edge, as seen from the Moon, then the Moon will become darker. The Moon will be at its darkest at midnight. It begins to exit the umbra at 12:42 and is fully clear of it by 1:49. It moves out of the penumbra at 2:56 a.m.

*A light year (l.y.) is the distance that light travels in one year: nearly 10 million million km or 10^13 km. Sunlight takes eight minutes to get here; moonlight about one second. Sunlight reaches Neptune, the outermost major planet, in four hours. It takes sunlight four years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

Notes by Alan Gilmore,
University of Canterbury's Mt John Observatory, 
P.O. Box 56, 
Lake Tekapo 7945,
New Zealand.