Sky Matters: November is a great month for skywatchers

NOVEMBER is a great month for skywatchers. The skies are at last getting dark and crisp at a reasonable hour and the winter constellations like Orion, which have been teasing us over recent weeks, are now assuming prominence in the night sky.

At this time of the year the Sun sets well below the horizon and ceases to cause any detectable skyglow between the hours of about 5pm and 5 or 6am. The atmosphere is also generally more stable, and observing conditions particularly good after a shower of rain. Look out for Jupiter to the south-east in the morning sky and especially on November 25, when it will be only a few degrees away from a beautiful waxing crescent moon. Earlier in the month, on November 14, the full moon will be the largest “supermoon” of the year, and it’s still not too late to catch the supermoon in October which occurs on the 22nd.

The Leonids’ meteor shower peaks on the nights of November 16 and 17, but the bright moon will make it difficult to observe the fainter meteors. This shower is strongest about every 33 years when the comet that generates the dust for the meteors, called Tempel-Tuttel, returns to the inner solar system. The result can be hundreds to thousands of meteors per hour, which must be one of the finest celestial wonders when it happens. That next peak is 2034, however, and don’t expect too much this year, perhaps 10-15 per hour! It’s always worth remembering that observing with the unaided eye is the best way to see meteors and that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.

Another comet worthy of mention, but one which is not responsible for any meteor shower and which has a name that is barely pronounceable (67p/Churyumov-Gerasiemenko), is currently hidden among the stars and invisible to all but the largest telescopes. This comet was the destination for one of the most daring and successful unmanned space missions ever. Many of us will remember that the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission landed a small spacecraft called Philae on the comet’s surface and then, after almost a year of flybys, performed a “controlled impact” of the orbiting spacecraft itself onto the comet’s surface on September 30, giving us views of pebbles as small as a few millimetres across. Let’s just think about that for a moment. Sixty years ago we hadn’t even launched a satellite into earth orbit, and now we are able to see pebbles on a comet which is flying past the earth at up to 84,000 mph. Irish scientists played a key role in this mission and the information returned will give us unprecedented insights into the origin of our solar system because comets are believed to be the leftover remains of the “stuff” that built the planets. One result we already know from Rosetta is that comets like 67p are not responsible for the water we see on earth today, although other comets probably were. Rosetta is a perfect example of world-class engineering and frontier science combining to help answer some of the important questions about the origin of our planet and, ultimately, ourselves. That makes this type of planetary exploration so exciting.

DID YOU KNOW?

Ireland’s first Space Week, which took place on October 3-8 at the same time as World Space Week, involved over 300 events across the country. This equates to 15% of the total number of World Space Week events, which is incredible for a country of our size.

Dr Niall Smith is head of research at CIT and head of Blackrock Castle Observatory.

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