Falling Leaves – Falling Stars and Flights of Fancy

I usually end my blog with this: “The sky is full of wonder.”  It is sometimes easy for me to forget that, to take the events of the day out of hand and think it has all been seen before.  I was reminded how wrong that thinking can be last night. As I was taking a stroll with my Boxadore (part boxer – part black Labrador – don’t ask.) I couldn’t help by be taken back by the clear November sky; with familiar star patterns and our old planetary friends Mars and Saturn.  The planets have been gracing our Southern sky for several months now.  In my last posting, I highlighted the Summer Triangle with the bright stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair forming the corners of the triangle.  You still have a bit of time to take that stunning asterism in before its replacement by constellations like Pegasus and Orion.  

While my dog stopped along the lane to see if any bunnies were around, our attention was drawn to faint whistling calls very faint, and seemingly very high in the sky.  They seemed to be coming from the region around the Summer Triangle. I recognized that sound. It certainly is familiar to anyone who grew up near cornfields at this time of year.  They were undoubtedly the calls of encouragement from one member to another in chevron flight for a flock of Snow Geese.

A southbound flock of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) was high overhead, but where?  As I listened and tried to locate the flock, a green streak of light from a small meteor startled me. This little chunk of copper and rock must have traveled un-tolled distances over the millennia only to enter our atmosphere, and provide celestial inspiration. Oh, it also gave away the location of the flock of Snow Geese.  I have seen geese in their migrations backlight by the moon, but this was a first for me. The outline of the flock was given away initially by the flash of a shooting star. With this momentary flash of light, I was then able to follow the flock as they called to each other on their southbound quest. Their faint, ghost-like image was lit from below on this moonless night.

I can’t imagine how far they have already flown.  I can’t fathom how far they have yet to fly. I used to see them back in my home state of Pennsylvania where their numbers would overwhelm the harvested corn fields.  

Snow Geese and many other migratory birds exhibit the pattern of flying in V shaper formations.  We have long suspected that they use this formation to assist in conserving energy, but only recently have we been able to scientifically explain how the V formation works.  This amazing trick occurs when a bird flaps its wings, a rotating vortex of air is produced off its wing tips. This results in the air immediately behind the wing getting constantly pushed downward (downwash), and the air behind it and immediately off to the sides getting pushed upward (upwash).  If another bird flies into the upwash zones it gets a free lift. The amount of energy required for the bird’s flight is reduced resulting in much happier and more rested birds in the formation. Maybe that is what they were whistling to each other, offering a “Thank You!”

The migration of these geese, with their V-shaped formations, foretold of the coming of winter.  Their familiar re-appearance provided comfort knowing that all was well with the natural world, that the seasons were advancing and new and exciting changes would proceed as well.  

The evenings are getting chillier and the more familiar star patterns of fall and winter are taking center stage.  Looking high above your head around 9:00 PM you may notice four stars making a square shape. The stars make up the Great Square of Pegasus.  Trailing to the east from the Great Square you will find the constellation, Andromeda. Andromeda was the beautiful daughter of Queen Cassiopeia who was offered as a sacrifice to Cetus the Sea Monster. It seems that Queen Cassiopeia was bragging that her beauty was greater than the sea nymphs and had to offer her daughter to appease the gods.

Look for the lazy “vee” streaming from the great square. You may be able to imagine a maiden chained to a rock with a flowing long dress.  Also, you may see a fuzzy patch of light within Andromeda.

The patch is actually another galaxy known as M31 or the Andromeda Galaxy. This spiral galaxy lies 2million light years from Earth and is roughly double the size of our own Milky Way galaxy.  

Another sign of fall is the first order star Fomalhaut.  It shines brightly just above the Southern Horizon in November evenings.  Fomalhaut is the brightest star in the constellation Pisces Austrinus or the Southern Fish.  Fomalhaut translates to mean “Mouth of the Fish”.

I would like to end by reviewing another amazing sight in our November sky. Stepping out into the evening’s chill, stare straight above your head, or by extending a line from the three stars of Orion’s belt located low near the Eastern Horizon through the red star Aldebaran, to observe a tiny cluster of stars looking like a mini-dipper.  In fact, many people confuse this bunch of stars with the Little Dipper. The small cluster of stars goes by many names given by many civilizations. It is known as The Seven Indian Maids, The Seven Sisters, or even Subaru. They represent a hen, the eyes of kings, and even a rattle snake’s head.  I think it is a bit ironic that it is often associated with the number seven. Most people can only see six stars. This pretty cluster of stars is known as the Pleiades or M45.

The cluster is often associated with the mythical nymphs, daughters of mighty Atlas and Pleione.  Inspection with a small telescope or pair of binoculars reveals that there are over two hundred stars in this star cluster.  The blue color reveals their high temperature and they are relatively young. This group of stars only formed after the time of the dinosaurs, only 50 – 60 million years ago.

The moon appears to brighten each night during the first three weeks of November.  As it “waxes” towards full moon on the 22nd and 23rd of the month, the moon encounters or has a conjunction with Mars in the Southern sky on the evening of the 15th.

Another interesting conjunction occurs on the evening of November 23.  The full moon’s light will most certainly wash out even the brightest stars in the Eastern sky.  The moon will be about a finger’s width from the red giant star Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull.

November – with its falling leaves, clear skies, bright stars and birds on the wing provide wonder and tempo to our world’s timely clock.  What wonders await those that cast their gaze upward! Never stop asking “What’s up?”


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