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November Skies     November 11, 2002

Welcome to the Classical Astronomy Update, an email newsletter especially for Christian homeschool families (though anyone is welcome!)  Please feel free to share this Update with any interested friends, especially homeschool families. 

If you or a friend would like to be added to the list for future emailings, please drop a line to

Be sure to visit The SkyWise Archive, a collection of educational astronomy cartoons to help your family learn about the sky.  Check it out at:

"God heals and the Doctor takes the Fees."

-- "Richard Saunders" aka Benjamim Franklin
Poor Richard's Almanack for 1736

Hello Friends,

Many thanks to everyone who has joined the list in recent months.  This Update started out as a sporadic email shared with my circle of friends.  In 2002, it has grown to reach over 150 people, including new friends from around the USA and beyond.  Many thanks to all who have shared the Update with friends and posted it to message boards around the Internet.  Special thanks to Susan Wise Bauer who has kindly allowed me to share this with the other classical homeschoolers at the "Well Trained Mind" message board. 

Please feel free to continue sharing the Update with your homeschool friends, so that our kid's generation could rediscover the lost secrets of sky.  Also, if you have any missionary friends in the field, please share the Update with them as well.  Perhaps in future Updates we could learn about the skies over other countries and the star lore of other cultures of the world.

"Rambling Thoughts"

On a non-astronomy note, I was recently pondering our funny English language.  It seems there are a lot of words that are best known in their negative forms.  For example, sometimes when the yarn in a sweater comes apart, we say it has "unravelled."  I suppose it follows that when the sweater was knitted, it was "ravelled."  Or when someone's clothes are all messed up, we say they are "disheveled."  I guess when they look neat and orderly, they are "sheveled." 

Or sometimes, you hear about someone walking down the street in a "nonchalant" fashion, meaning they are casually taking their time,  I guess if they are all flustered and in a hurry, they must be "chalant."  Or if someone hates his job, he's "disgruntled."  But if he loves his job, he must be "gruntled." 

You can go on and on.  Putting something together must be "mantling" since "dismantling" is taking something apart.  If you share the vision of something, you must be "illusioned" since "disllusioned" means the opposite.  And to say nice things about someone must be to "parage" them since "disparage" means to to say nasty things.  And we wonder why immigrants have a hard time learning this language!

1)  "Celestial Almanack"
2)  "Signs and Seasons" (Gen. 1:14)
       *** November daylight ***
       *** Leonid meteors ***
       *** Penumbral Eclipse ***
3)  "Seasonal Constellations"
4)  "Astronomical Queries"

"Celestial Almanack" (detailed explanations below)

Monday Evening, November 11 -- Moon is at First Quarter (waxing half moon)
Tuesday Morning, November 19 -- Leonid Meteor Shower
Tuesday Evening, November 19 -- Full Moon, Penumbral Eclipse of the Moon
Friday Morning, November 22 -- Moon passes above Saturn
Tuesday Morning, November 26 -- Moon passes above Jupiter
Wednesday Morning, November 27 -- Moon is at Last Quarter (waning half moon)

"Signs and Seasons" (Gen. 1:14)

*** November Daylight ***
Here we are now in November, and the days are about as short as they will get for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.   Though the Winter Solstice on December 21 is technically the "shortest day of the year," it's not much shorter than the other days from early November until about mid-February, at least for those of us in the mid-northern temperate latitudes.

For example, here in Cleveland, Ohio on November 1, the Sun sets at about 5:16 PM Eastern Standard Time.  On the Winter Solstice, December 21, the Sun will set here at about 4:54 PM, a difference of only about 20 minutes.  (Of course, if you live further south, the Sun sets a bit later, and earlier if you live further north.)  In any case, wherever you live the dark days are here!  The good part is the early nightfall of wintertime can offer a prime season for early evening stargazing, especially for small kids with early bedtimes!

*** Leonid meteors ***
One event to note on your calendar is the Leonid Meteor Shower of Tuesday Morning, November 19, 2002.  I'm sure the media will publicize this event since the Leonids delivered a spectacular shower in 2001.  Since there is a lot to say about this event, I'll send out a separate Classical Astronomy Alert later this week to tell you more about it.

*** Penumbral Eclipse ***
There will be a penumbral eclipse of the Moon on Tuesday Evening, November 19, 2002, the next night after the Leonid shower.  This is pretty much a non-event as far as eclipses go.  The Moon will pass through the "penumbra" of the Earth's shadow.  This means that no part of the Moon will pass through the "umbra" or dark part of the Earth's shadow. 

If you were on the Moon looking at the Earth, you'd see only a part of the Sun covered by the edge of the Earth.  At all times, at least some direct sunlight will be shining on the Moon.  So the best you can hope to see is a reduction in brightness of the Full Moon.  This might be a good time to see the features on the Moon since some of the usual glare will be reduced.

For an explanation of penumbral effects, check out the SkyWise comic strip called "Penumbra":

The Moon will enter Earth's penumbra at about 6:30 Eastern Standard Time (EST).  The deepest part of the eclipse will occur at about 8:45 EST.  So the Moon should be quite high in the sky for most of the North America.  However, to notice any decrease in the Moon's brightness, you'll need a very clear sky.  But in any event, don't sweat it if you miss this, there'll be better things to see in the coming months.  

"Seasonal Constellations"

The November sky is the best time of year to observe the constellations associated with the myth Perseus.  In this pagan fairy tale, Perseus is a great hero who kills evil monsters, rides on a winged horse named Pegasus, and rescues the beautiful princess Andromeda.  This doesn't sound too different from the storylines of many Hollywood action movies!!!

In the last Update, one of your homework assignments was to learn to find the constellation "Cassiopeia" (pronounced "Cassy-Oh-Pee-a").  This constellation is supposed to depict Queen Cassiopeia, the mother of Andromeda, sitting regally on her throne in the Perseus myth. 

While most people have trouble envisioning a Queen, this star pattern does include five stars that look remarkably like a number "3" on fall evenings.     After it gets dark look to the North.  Cassiopeia will be above and to the right of the North Star.  Don't look for the Big Dipper this month since it is low in the trees, on the opposite side of the North Star from Cassiopeia.

Once you find Cassiopeia, look up and to the right of the top of the "3" pattern.  At about one and a half Cassiopeia-lengths away, you should be able to see The Great Square of Pegasus.  Though you'll have a hard time seeing Pegasus as a winged horse, it's a fairly plain square of bright stars.  To properly see the Great Square, turn around toward the South and it should be high in the sky. 

Did you learn to find the Summer Triangle discussed in previous Updates?  The Triangle can still be seen in the evening sky, but now turning toward the western sky.  The Great Square the next brightest star pattern to the left of the Summer Triangle.  If you learn the Great Square this month, it will help you in learning the constellations moving in from the east that will be visible in coming months.

(((((( BINOCULAR ALERT!!! ))))))
In between Cassiopeia and the Great Square is the faint, indistinct constellation Andromeda.  The stars of this constellation are harder to pick out, especially from light polluted skies in the cities.  About 2/3 of the way from Cassiopeia to the upper corner of the Great Square lies M31, the famous Andromeda Galaxy.  This can be easy to see with modest binoculars, even from the city. 

Through binoculars, the Andromeda Galaxy will appear as a fuzzy blob.  Don't expect to see a spectacular view like some magazine photo.  Such astrophotographs are taken over long time exposures through fancy telescopes.  You can't see anything nearly as bright or detailed through binoculars or even a telescope.  But you can see a blob which science tells us is another galaxy, incomprehensibly far from our little Earth.

*** Perseus ***
From most places in the northern temperate zone, you can see a very bright star called Capella rising above the trees in the early evenings, right below Cassiopeia.  In between Cassiopeia and Capella is the constellation Perseus himself.  Unlike other constellations we've seen, Perseus does not have an easy shape to describe.  I see a diagonal line of stars, extending from upper right to lower left, with two branches extending downwards. 

It would be easier to first learn Cassiopeia and use a star map to help you find Perseus.  You can find a star map each month in Sky & Telescope magazine.  To help with learning the constellations, I also recommend an astronomy shareware program called "Skyglobe."  If you are serious about learning the sky, this program can be a big help. 

Skyglobe shows you the sky from just about any place on Earth.  Plus, you can go forward and backward in time to see the positions of the stars and planets in past and future years (and even centuries!)  You can download Skyglobe from many places on the Internet, including this web page:

*** Algol ***
An interesting feature in the constellation Perseus is the star "Algol," which represents the head of the slain monster Medusa.  This star is of a type known as an "eclipsing binary."  It's actually two stars where a dimmer star passes in front of a brighter star, eclipsing it and making Algol appear to change in brightness from night to night.  The period of Algol is about three days.  So if you spot this star one night, it'll look bright.  The next night it'll look noticably dimmer.  Two days after that, it will be back to its original brightness again.  While Perseus is not the easiest constellation to learn to find, it's worth the effort just to follow the changing brightness of Algol.

*** History ***
While Perseus is known to us as a myth, there may in fact have been a real man upon whom the legend is based.  In 400 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Perseus was the father of the Persian people.  Without a doubt the decendents of Perseus have played a prominent role in history.

The Old Testament has much to say about the Persian Empire, especially in the books of Ezra and Daniel.  After the conquest of Babylon, it was King Cyrus of Persia who ended the Babylonian Captivity of the Tribe of Judah.  Cyrus showed great kindness to God's people in this time, allowing the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple to be restored.  His successors continued this kindness.  One hundred years after Cyrus, the Persian King Ahasuarus was the husband of Esther who allowed the enemies of the Jews to be defeated.

In later centuries, the Persians conquered Greece.  At the frontier of the Empire, the kings of Persia were at war with kings of Macedonia, in the northern part of Greece.  In about 330 BC, a Macedonian king named Alexander the Great rose up and eventually conquered the entire Persian Empire, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Ganges River in India.  After Alexander, a new Persian empire arose, ruled by the Greek decendents of Alexander's generals.

In 146 BC, Rome conquered Greece, and became the new power in the Mediterranean for the next 750 years.  Though Rome eventually conquered all the western lands of Alexander's Greek empire, Persia remainded as the one enemy that Rome could never defeat.  For centuries, many Roman emperors fought to a standstill against the Persians.  After the Roman capital moved to Constantinople, the Byzantine emperors remained at war with Persia.  

By about 600 AD, the Byzantine and Persian empires had fought each other to exhaustion.  With no strong armies to protect them, both weakened empires were at the mercy of a new power in the region: Islam.  In 632 AD, the armies of Mohammed spilled out of the Arabian peninsula, fighting both Byzantium and Persia.  Defeating the weakened Byzantine army, the Christian lands of Israel, Syria and Egypt were lost to the Muslim Caliphs.  Though the Byzantine Empire lasted another 800 years, the Persian Empire was conquered completely. 

The lands of the former Persian Empire are today the nations of Iraq, Iran and Afganistan.  These lands remain Muslim to this day.  However, many Persians who escaped the Arab conquest of Persia had settled in Bombay, India, and preserved the traditional Persian culture and religion.  These people are today known as the "Parsees," another name for "Persians."

So when you look up this fall at the constellations of Cassiopeia, Pegasus and Perseus, don't think of the far-fetched pagan myth.  Instead, think of the Persian kings Cyrus and Ahasuerus, who were used mightily by God in their lifetimes.  Think of the great Persian Empire that played a prominent role in the history of the world for 1200 years.  And pray for the Persian people alive today who might still claim the mythical hero Perseus as their ancestor.

"Astronomical Queries"

If you have any questions about the Sun, Moon and stars, or anything else from Classical Astronomy, please submit your questions to  If I use your question in a future Update, I'll send you a free copy of "Cycles," my astronomy comic book.

For those in the USA, the Ryan family wishes you all a Happy Thanksgiving.  To everyone else, we hope the fall season is good to you.  Til next time,

God bless and clear skies! -- jay 

For more information about topics from Classical Astronomy, please check out Signs & Seasons, a homeschool astronomy curriculum!

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