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Star Talk: Stars of the autumn night sky owe their stories to ancient mythology

Star Talk: Stars of the autumn night sky owe their stories to ancient mythology

Before there was literature, before there was writing, before there was language, humans gazed up at

Before there was literature, before there was writing, before there was language, humans gazed up at the night sky in wonder and awe. Once verbal communication developed, the allure of the stars gave rise to cultural stories about these nocturnal lights and the cosmic objects that moved overhead.

Groups of these nightly luminaries mimicked nature’s rhythm of time and season. From these celestial cycles, the first civilizations outlined the calendar and shaped the year. Seven astral “wanderers” lead the days, each assigned its own interval: Sun’s day, Moon’s day, and so on through Saturn’s day.

In the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, the first star patterns were fashioned more than 5,000 years ago. Thirty-five hundred years ago in the lands of ancient Sumer and Babylonia, the first catalogs and records of planetary positions were completed. Stories for the star patterns — sky lore — came about to predict the repeatable celestial events, such as the calendrical crossover days when one season changed to the next.

Maiden and hero

Many “modern” star stories about the Northern Hemisphere constellations come from Greek mythology. For the autumn sky, the best-known tale is the account of Andromeda, the chained maiden, along with her hero Perseus and his winged horse Pegasus.

By nightfall in midautumn, the lead star of Pegasus, Enif (the horse’s nose), is more than halfway up the sky in the south. Although there are not any particularly bright stars in this part of the night sky, look for a group of four stars that makes either a large square or a large diamond-shaped figure, depending on its orientation. This star pattern is regarded as the body of the flying horse and is called the Great Square of Pegasus. Keep in mind that, as seen from midnorthern latitudes, the horse is traveling across the sky upside down with its head directed toward the northwest.

Diagonally opposite, in the northeastern corner of the Great Square, is a star called Alpheratz. This is the lead star of Andromeda, a grouping formed by two lines of stars drawn out to the northeast from Alpheratz. Just above these two strings of stars is the Great Andromeda Galaxy, listed in star catalogs and on star maps as M31. This collection of hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of stars is taken as the farthest object humans can see without the use of a telescope or binoculars. On a dark night, the unaided eye can see this stellar mass as an elongated, whitish-gray, faint cloud.

Continuing to the northeast from Andromeda leads to Perseus, the hero who rode the winged horse to rescue Andromeda. The stars of Perseus are arranged into a whimsically script, overturned “V” with a curve of stars trailing from the central part of the inverted V-shape.

During November and December, all three of these constellations are well placed for observing throughout the evening. As winter passes by, Pegasus and Andromeda slide into the northwestern sky and by late February, these two star patterns are no longer seen.

November Sky

Jupiter is shining like a sentinel in the south as the sky becomes dark. More so, as the radiant “evening star,” it acts as a celestial marker among the much fainter stars of the Capricornus, the constellation of the Sea Goat. Jupiter, a physically large and visually brilliant planet, is the brightest starlike object after dark, even outshining the vivid stars of winter that rise late in the evening. Only Venus outshines Jupiter, and it currently rises around 5:30 a.m., more than four hours after Jupiter has set.

Rising only one hour before Jupiter sets is Mars. The fourth planet from the sun comes over the east-northeastern horizon slightly before midnight, revealing itself against the stars of Cancer the crab.

During the night of Nov. 1, watch this pumpkin-colored world slowly pass in front of the “Beehive,” a star cluster in the central part of the crab constellation. A telescope provides an intimate view of the Red Planet’s slow advance eastward against this cluster’s stars.

Although Mars is rising in the very late evening, this planet will be in view two hours earlier by the end of November, a result of Earth’s orbital motion and our switch to standard time.

Also, keep an eye on the brightness of Mars as November progresses and observe how its light is slowly getting more intense throughout the month. From the sun’s point-of-view, Earth will soon race ahead of Mars in its never-ending trip around the sun. This arrangement is causing the distance between the two planets to diminish, and the decreasing distance translates into an increase in brightness for Mars.

Saturn is up next, appearing three hours before the sun and rising almost directly east along the horizon. Its orbital position is tilting the planet’s rings toward us again after a difficult-to-see, edge-on view of the rings that occurred in early September. The Ringed Planet is against the westernmost stars of Virgo.

Venus currently climbs over the eastern horizon about an hour-and-a-half before the sun, but will appear later and substantially closer to the sun as November elapses. By the end of the month, Venus will be getting harder to find, as it gets deeper into the bright glow of morning twilight.

First phase

Tonight, the moon is in its first-quarter phase. Oddly, this means that one-half of the moon facing Earth is lit. It is called “first quarter” because the moon has gone one-quarter of the way around Earth in its current cycle of phases.

By tomorrow evening, the moon will have progressed in its orbit so that a little more of its surface facing Earth is lit; the moon will then be in its waxing gibbous phase. The moon will have also moved a little farther east during the intervening 24-hour period, positioning itself close to Jupiter’s location on the overhead sphere of celestial objects. Luna will be in its third-quarter phase when it again appears with Jupiter on Nov. 23.

The lunar phase will be waning gibbous when it comes into view with Mars during the night of Nov. 9, and then a waning crescent near Saturn in the predawn sky of Nov. 12. Three days later, an exceptionally thin lunar crescent appears near Venus a half-hour before sunrise.

Richard Monda is an astronomer living in the Capital Region.

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