Many Americans will be sitting down with family and friends on Thursday (Nov. 24) to a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner during the mid-to-late afternoon hours. Then as darkness falls, some will probably migrate into the living room to catch some football or other holiday fare on television.
But if you have a large gathering of family and friends at your home — and if your skies are mainly clear — why not invite everyone outside to gaze at the evening sky? If you have binoculars, or better yet, a telescope, you just might end up turning this into a memorable family tradition of its own.
No matter what your Thanksgiving plans are this year, the moon will be dim on Thursday (Nov. 24) evening this year, offering a nice dessert treat of three bright planets in the night sky.
No moon, but three planets
This year, the moon will be only one day past new phase and will not be visible. But three bright planets will. Heading outside about 90 minutes after sundown, we can see Saturn, shining with a sedate, yellow-white glow about one-third up in the south-southwest sky. With a telescope of magnifying 30-power or more, the planet's famous rings begin to come into view. If you have a 4-inch telescope, a 100-power eyepiece will readily bring Saturn's most famous appendage into view.
Meanwhile, far brighter and standing about halfway up in the south-southeast will be Jupiter, appearing like a dazzling, silvery-white, non-twinkling star. Steadily-held binoculars will provide a glimpse of the four big Galilean satellites, first glimpsed by Galileo in 1610. A telescope will easily show the disk of the biggest planet in our solar system — 11 times larger than our Earth — with all four moons in view. On one side will be Callisto, appearing quite far from the big planet, while very close to Jupiter will be Io. On the other side of Jupiter are the other pair of moons, closer in to each other, Ganymede and Europa.
And if you have a free and clear, unobstructed view of the east-northeast horizon, you'll see a third planet, Mars, shining with a fiery yellow-orange color and appearing even brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Next week, on Nov. 30, Mars will make its closest approach to Earth — 50.61 million miles (81.43 million km) from Earth — the closest that it will come to Earth until the year 2031.
Stars of late autumn
In terms of stars and constellations visible this Thanksgiving 2022, it is interesting to note that many of the star groups and rich Milky Way fields of summer evenings are still very much evident in the western part of the sky, while the brilliant yellow star Capella ascending in the northeast is a promise of even more dazzling luminaries to come. For in just another few weeks, Orion and his retinue will be dominating our winter skies.
Still very well placed high in the west is the "Summer Triangle," a roughly isosceles figure composed of the stars Vega, Altair and Deneb. As we move deeper into the autumn season and the evenings grow all the chillier, this configuration sinks lower and lower in the west. If you have binoculars, invite family and friends to use them to sweep among the splendid star fields of the Summer Triangle. They may very well share Galileo's awe when more than four centuries ago he first turned his telescope on the myriads of faint star that compose our Milky Way.
Looking high in the south-southeast — almost overhead — are the four bright stars that compose the Great Square of Pegasus, a landmark of the autumn sky. And if you have a clear view of the northern horizon, it is there where you will find the familiar Big Dipper, looking abnormally large due to the "moon illusion" which makes both the sun and the moon and even star patterns like the Dipper appear larger than normal when they are situated close to the horizon. Meanwhile, the striking zig-zag row of five bright stars forming the "M" of Cassiopeia, the Queen, soars high above the Dipper in the north.
Looking back in time
The very first Thanksgiving is said to have taken place in the year 1621. We see many stars by light that started its immense journey before our country was born. Are there any stars that are around 400 light years away? Because of the difficulty in measuring parallaxes (distant objects' changing positions when viewed from Earth), astronomers cannot determine such distances with an accuracy of one light-year. However, the 2022 "Observer's Handbook" of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, in its table of 288 brightest stars, lists two that are above the horizon on November evenings that are 400 light-years away: Third-magnitude Algenib, the star in the lower left corner of the Great Square of Pegasus, and second-magnitude Almach, at the end of the chain of stars marking the constellation of Andromeda, the princess. If you see either of these stars on your next clear night, keep in mind that you are looking at light that started on its journey to Earth about the same time that the first pilgrims were arriving in what we now call the state of Massachusetts.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium (opens in new tab). He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine (opens in new tab), the Farmers' Almanac (opens in new tab) and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) and on Facebook (opens in new tab).