by Kim Malville
At the start of the month, one hour after sunset, Saturn is in the south-southwest, above the handle of the teapot of Sagittarius. It is part of a long line of three major planets with Jupiter and Venus. Watch the movement of Venus throughout this month. By its end, Venus will have charged past Jupiter and will be approaching Saturn The big event will be the rare passage of Mercury across the face of our sun. The last one visible on the earth was three and a half years ago May 9, 2016 and the next will be 13 years in the future on May 13, 2032. A telescope with a good solar filter will be necessary to observe this transit. Be very careful!
November 1: Look for Saturn, the crescent moon, and Jupiter all in a line soon after sunset.
November: 3 End of Daylight Savings Time at 2am.
November 11: Transit of Mercury
November 12: Full Moon
November 16-17: Leonid meteor shower. Because of the moon, the fainter meteors will not be visible.
November 23: Shortly after sunset look to the southwest to see Venus and Jupiter close to each other.
November 26: New Moon
November 28: Some 45 minutes after sunset look for the slender crescent moon just above Venus. Nearby will be Jupiter and Saturn.
November 29: The crescent moon will have moved just below Saturn.
Constellation of the month: Pegasus
In early November, if you look nearly overhead, you will see a square of stars, the Square of Pegasus. It is one of the largest constellations in the sky, though at first hard to identify as a flying horse. The constellation was inspired by some pretty strange Greek mythology. Pegasus is the white winged horse that sprang from the neck of Medusa when she was decapitated by Perseus. Two Swiss astronomers, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz, both professors at University of Geneva, won part of this year’s Nobel prize in physics for their discovery in 1995 of a planet orbiting a star in the constellation of Pegasus. The planet was identified as 51Pegasi b, ushering in the last two decades of a search that has discovered more than 4000 exoplanets. 51 Pegasi is 50 light years away. The planet is a very, very hot version of Jupiter, but with half the mass. It lies much closer to its star than does our neighbor Mercury. The distance of the planet is a mere 5 million miles, compared to Mercury’s distance of 27 million miles at its closest approach. Mercury has no atmosphere, which must have boiled off the planet long ago. Because it has no blanketing by an atmosphere, the temperature of Mercury swings between two extremes: reaching 800°F in the day and falling to -280°F at night. 51 Pegasi b has enough mass that its thick atmosphere has not been evaporated or blown away by the star’s solar wind. The planet keeps one face to its star at all times, and its atmosphere must be a boiling inferno. Beneath this hot gas, its surface must be glowing red with puddles of molten rock, with a temperature of approximately 1800°F.
Emblem of British Airborn Forces in World War II showing Bellerophon astride Pegasus.
Medusa & Pegasus
Back to Greek mythology and the incredible tragedy of Medusa. She was initially a beautiful young priestess of Athena before she was assaulted by Posidon, the god of the Sea who wished to humiliate Athena by raping Medusa on the steps of her temple. One requirement to be a priestess for Athena is that the young woman must be a virgin and give her life to the goddess. In her anger at the defilement of her priestess in her temple Athena transformed Medusa into an ugly and dangerous gorgon. Her hair was converted into a nest of writhing snakes and her face became so ugly that anyone who looked at her was turned to stone. Perseus was sent to fetch the head of Medusa by King Polydectes of Seriphus because Polydectes wanted to marry Perseus’s mother. The gods were well aware of this, and Perseus received winged sandals, an invisibility cloak, and a highly polished shield. Using the cloak and the reflection of Medusa from the shield, he was able to approach the Gorgon and kill her by chopping off her head. Out of her severed neck sprang Pegasus, whose father was Posiden, and, of course, he was foaled by Medusa. A stunning white horse was the true inner self of the ugly Gorgon. Bellerophon & Pegasus Pegasus was caught by Bellerophon who then became famous by riding Pegasus and killing the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster consisting of the body of a goat, the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent. According to Homer, Bellerophon equipped his spear with a lump of lead that melted when thrust into the Chimera’s fiery throat who then suffocated to death. Bellerophon fell victim to one of the Greeks’ greatest evils, hubris. For the Greeks, hubris of humans was worse than sexual misconduct by gods. Bellerophon forced Pegasus to fly him to Mount Olympus, the home of the Gods, where he wished to sit amongst the gods. Zeus, greatly annoyed at Bellerophon’s presumption, sent an insect to bite Pegasus on his flank, causing him to rear up and unseat Bellerophon, who fell to earth and ended his days a sad and lonely figure, blind and lame. For Pegasus, however, there was the reward of a place in the stables on Mount Olympus, and the opportunity to carry around Zeus’s thunderbolts. Eventually, Zeus transformed Pegasus into the constellation. The horse appears upside down in the sky, perhaps symbolizing the unseating of Bellerophon.
A test of darkness
As you all know very well, we have wonderfully dark skies in Crestone. One way to measure our darkness is to count the number of stars one can see inside the square of Pegasus. In bright city skies, few if any stars can be seen.
I would be greatly indebted if any of you readers could make that count and send your results to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. It will be great fun to see the results.