Thanksgiving is often thought of as a time for family and friends to get together — but after the feast has been consumed, what’s next on the agenda?
A time to reflect on one’s many blessings? Certainly.
A visual feast of football enjoyed from an overstuffed recliner, long after the turkey and all its trimmings have been savored and devoured? Perhaps.
But if the big gathering is at your home this year, here is a concept that’s a bit outside the box: Why not break out your telescope and treat your loved ones to an eyeful of celestial sights in the night sky? Have a star party, and introduce your guests to the night sky. The approach certainly can make this year’s Thanksgiving stand out, as well as provide some great fun.
If you’re looking for telescopes or binoculars to beef up your stargazing, we’ve got you covered. Our Black Friday binoculars deals and Black Friday telescope deals guides are being updated throughout the weekend. You can also check out our best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography to make sure you’re ready for the next stargazing event.
A planetary triple play
About 45 minutes after sunset, step outside during the chilly November dusk and look toward the south-southwest part of the sky. There you will find three bright planets stretched out in a line.
Going from lower left to upper right, you’ll find dazzling Venus, followed by a much dimmer Saturn and finally brilliant Jupiter. From Venus to Jupiter, the entire line will stretch for 37 degrees. Your clenched fist held out at arm’s length measures approximately 10 degrees, so, when we speak of 37 degrees, we mean about the equivalent of roughly three and a half “fists.”
From Venus to Saturn will measure 20 degrees — “two fists” — while from Saturn to Jupiter will measure 17 degrees, a bit closer together.
Venus is, by far, the brightest object in our Thanksgiving evening sky. Blazing at magnitude -4.6, it outshines its nearest competitor, Jupiter, by more than 8 times and Saturn by 132-fold. Venus is so incredibly bright because the clouds that perpetually hide its surface are so highly reflective; the planet is also much closer to Earth than either Jupiter and Saturn. Finally, Venus is nearly seven times closer to the sun than Jupiter and almost 14 times closer to the sun than Saturn, so it receives much more sunlight to reflect.
Using a telescope, you’ll find Venus resembling a wide crescent, 32% illuminated. Look quick, because after 6:45 p.m. local time, Venus will be much too low to the south-southwest horizon to provide a stable image; it will set shortly thereafter.
But just because Saturn is not as bright as Venus doesn’t mean the ringed beauty is faint. In fact, among the 21 brightest stars in the sky, Saturn currently would be tied with similarly hued Altair for 12th place.
And any telescope magnifying at least 30-power will show Saturn’s famous ring system.
Perhaps a few of your holiday guests traveled a long distance to get to your house. Tell them that right now, that dot of light that we see as Saturn is 958.2 million miles (1.54 billion kilometers) from Earth. And if they traveled at 65 mph (105 km/h), it would take them about 614,000 days — or about 1,680 years — to get there!
Suddenly, that tiring trip to get to your house in holiday traffic doesn’t seem all that long.
Saturn will remain visible until about 8:45 p.m. local time, then get too low and finally set.
Finally, there is Jupiter, which through a telescope shows a full disk slightly larger in apparent size compared to Venus. All four of the famous Galilean satellites will be readily visible, even in steadily-held binoculars. Three will be aligned on one side of the giant planet: Farthest from Jupiter will be Callisto, then comes Ganymede, while Io will be closest to Jupiter. Meanwhile, sitting all by itself on the other side of Jupiter will be Europa.
Jupiter will remain in view until around 10 p.m. local time.
The International Space Station
The largest human-made object currently orbiting Earth will be making evening passes over the northern contiguous United States on Thanksgiving. The International Space Station (ISS) appears as a very bright, non-twinkling “star” with a yellow-white tint that moves steadily across the sky. Depending on its exact track, it may be visible for a few minutes or more.
Two websites can tell you exactly where to look for the ISS on Thanksgiving evening: NASA’s Spot the Station or Heavens Above. There are currently seven people on board the ISS: six men and one woman; two are Russian cosmonauts and one is a German astronaut for the European Space Agency, while the others are American astronauts.
Unfortunately, if you live south of 35° north latitude (around Tennessee’s border with Alabama and Mississippi), you likely will not be able to spot the ISS; the station will either be too low to see or making a pass when the local skies are too bright to see it.
Final views, then a snooze
You can finish your tour of the sky by pointing out some of the landmarks of late autumn: the Great Square of Pegasus almost overhead; the “M” of Cassiopeia high in the north; and the stars of the Big Dipper, also known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear just scraping the northern horizon. This time of year, bears are hibernating, which is why our celestial bear is so low in our sky.
And that could also be the signal to head back inside and, like the bears, finish the day with a post-Thanksgiving nap.
Remember, Thanksgiving is a time to be merry, a time to say thank you — and a time to have some great fun.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.