November Night Skies over Tanzania
The peaceful choice of our next “work only” President has given encouragement to all inquisitive people to persevere in face of any problems to understand nature deeply, and from its fundamentals, so that we can use the deep knowledge and understanding of the behaviour of nature to solve our problems in our local environment, conditions and circumstances. This is what science is about and astronomy helps to attract and excite young and old to understand the mysteries of our Universe and hence our world. We wish all Tanzanians the very best to achieve these goals under his guidance to boost the development of astronomy in Tanzania.
Among the space stories that are making headlines at the moment, the discovery of irregular variation in the light from a star, named KIC 8462852, has excited millions of people since some scientist think it is caused by a megastructure that could have been built around the star by a strange advanced form of life. Of course there are other possible explanations but that of alien life is not being ruled out. We await further observations and analysis.
Another event to look out for on November 13 at 9:20 am our time is the entry of a man made object falling onto Earth from orbital space into the oceans off the coast of Sri Lanka. We know that there are thousands of pieces of space rubbish that continue to orbit Earth after finishing their jobs as satellites, rockets etc. This particular object that is expected to fall just off the Sri Lankan coast is thought to be the third stage of a rocket. It is expected to burn up in the atmosphere due to friction with air molecules so any remaining material is not expected to be harmful to human life since it is expected to plunge into the ocean. Await the news that day to learn its fate.
A well-known explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs that was caused by the impact of a mountain sized meteor has been further confirmed after detailed observations of the impact site which created the Gulf of Mexico. The surface features under the ocean in the Gulf and the surrounding American and Mexican coasts have been shown to have been created from an impact of an extremely huge meteor from outer space. Its impact caused the Earth’s atmosphere to be covered with dust, blocking out the Sun and caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Only small animals survived that could shelter underground and which were able to conserve their heat and evolved into many life forms that we see today, 65 million years later.
In the evening night skies, Saturn is the only visible planet and it is shifting out of view by the end of the month, as the Earth moves away from it in its orbit around the Sun. So take time after sunset to view the planet, preferably through at telescope in the evening skies of November, about 20 degrees above the western horizon just sunset. Watch out on 12 and 13 November when a thin fresh crescent Moon comes close to Saturn below and above it on the two successive days. By the end of the month Saturn will have disappeared from the sky leaving our night skies “dry”, without any visible planets, until May next year.
All the planetary excitement is in the early morning sky at the moment, with the two brightest planets Venus and Jupiter competing for attention, with the pair close together with Mars in the middle, forming a straight line. This shows that the planets are all orbiting the Sun in one flat plane.
Venus and Jupiter will move apart in the sky as the days pass, with Venus getting gradually lower in the sky while Jupiter will rise higher and higher in the early morning night sky.
Venus is at it brightest now, and through a telescope it is seen as a half disk phase since the other half is in its night shadow. Venus will continue to be seen as a bright morning star near the east horizon until April next year after which it will disappear briefly behind the Sun and a few weeks later reappear as an evening star at sunset in June next year.
Mars is a red dot in the early morning sky at the moment seen between Venus and Jupiter. It will continue to brighten gradually as the months go by since it is nearing Earth in its orbit around the Sun. By April next year it will appear bright in the late night skies.
The Andromeda galaxy, the farthest galaxy (at 2 million light-years away) that we can see with our naked eyes is close to the Square of Pegasus nearer to the northern horizon, while our nearest galaxy, (at half a million light-years), the South Megallanic Cloud, lies at the opposite end of the sky in the south, between Achernar and the south point. In relatively dark skies, both galaxies appear as fuzzy patches about 4 degrees across (4 fingers held at an arm’s length).
The bright stars this month that are worth knowing by name are: Fomalhaut, Altaír, Deneb in Cygnus (the northern bird), Vega, Achenar and lastly Aldebaran, which is in constellation Taurus just rising in the east. These are all first magnitude stars. Algol in Perseus is a special star because it varies continuously in brightness approximately every three days.
The Milky Way band across the sky winds its way from south west to north east, straddling the western horizon so it does not cross the sky. Hence this month most of the sky will appear to have rather few stars because it is well away from the bright band.
The International Space Station (ISS) has completed 15 years since its launch on November 2, 2000. Over the 15 years it has been slowly assembled into the football ground sized structure that it is today with parts contributed by many space faring nations. It continues to orbit Earth every 90 minutes at a height of 400 kilometers and can be seen as a bright star when it is above your sky at night due to sunlight reflected from its surface.
This month the ISS can be seen crossing right across the middle of the sky on 26 November, rising from the southwest horizon around 7 pm (7:05 pm for Dar es Salaam) and crosses the overhead skies and will disappear in the northeast horizon 10 minutes later (9:11 pm for Dar es Salaam). It can also be seen on November 25 and 28 though lower in the sky, and on 25th it will disappear suddenly in the middle of the sky when it enters the Earth’s shadow. It will also be seen over Tanzanian skies on December 2, 4 and 5. For exact times for your location, visit www.heavens-above.com for exact timings and directions and also for timings and positions of many more satellites.