Looking Up: November’s constellation parade

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald
Cetus the Whale is among the dim constellations of November evenings. Cetus is due south at around 10 p.m.

Chart by Peter Becker

By Peter Becker

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November nights can be crisp, both in the nip in the air and crunch under your feet as you saunter among the fallen amber leaves, gazing upward at the dim autumn constellations. You may hear the honking of geese, their fascinating V-formation hidden in the dark of night, yet they know where they are going - south. Eastern Standard Time is here, meaning those who keep an early appointment with their pillow can be assured of at least some time under the stars after dinner.

What can you expect to see on a late autumn evening - about 8 p.m. in mid-November? Looking south is a lone fish with a bright eye, a whale, a pair of fish on an angler’s string, a fellow bearing a bucket, a horse with wings, a goat, a dolphin and a tiny horse. In the west are the departing friends of summer, an eagle, a swan, a harp, a little fox, a spent arrow, a dolphin and a strong man. Turn north and you see a really large dipper almost sitting on the ground- part of a big bear, with a smaller dipper - also known as a small bear- above it; a dragon coils his tail between the two, and riding high is a king and a queen - and oh yes, a lizard - right overhead. Swing to the east and looking right down at you is a purring lynx, a chariot driver next to a bull, a giraffe, a ram, a carpenter’s triangle and handsome beau trailing after a young maiden.

The longer you keep looking east the more of this menagerie parades before you. At 9 p.m., a pair of twins (is that redundant?), a hunter (right in time for deer season) and a river has joined the scene. At 10 p.m., a little dog, a rabbit and a furnace (good thing for it’s getting chilly) has risen over the eastern horizon. At 11 p.m. - and this assumes you have an unobstructed view - a crab, a unicorn and a bog dog with a very bright collar has leaped up. At 12 midnight a lion is just starting to rise, with Saturn in its front paw; nearby is the head of a very long serpent; the unicorn is now prancing in plain view.

Surely you haven’t turned in yet, with all this to see! Still looking east, at 1 a.m. the lion and his faithful friend, the little lion (cub?) are above the horizon and the serpent’s bright collar is shining at you. At 2 a.m. the serpent is still now fully up. With it is a mariner’s sextant, a pair of hunting dogs and of all things, a lady’s hairpiece on a stick. At 3 a.m. on the very east horizon is the top of the head of a virgin, and to the right, a chalice. Wait till 4 a.m. and the virgin, now almost fully up, is joined on the left by the first signs of a herdsman, and on the right, a not so noisy crow. At 5 a.m., the virgin is showing off her bright gem, as is the herdsman. Just rising, under the herdsman is a crown fit for a king.

Many people, mostly in ancient times, imagined pictures among the stars, a great aid in remembering them. These "constellations" served as fantastic picture books, complete with wonderful stories that were handed orally from generation to generation. They have aided countless mariners as they navigated their ships, and served as signs for farmers who follow the seasons, and crafters of calendars. Tribes and nations around the world created their own constellations, thousands of years ago. Most constellations we have today came down from the ancient Greeks.

A few small and dim groups - such as the sextant, microscope, telescope and compass- were added in relatively recent times, filling in gaps between the classic constellations of yore. Several were added once astronomers from Europe traveled to the southern hemisphere and continued charting the heavens. They are known by their Latin names, such as Ursa Major, or in English, the Great Bear.

In 1929 the International Astronomical Union officially recognized 88 constellations, which were designated on charts with official boundary lines. The stars of course, know nothing of this!

Last-quarter moon is on Nov. 14.

Keep looking up!