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November's Star of the Month: Fomalhaut

At nightfall, it's hard to miss Fomalhaut (FO-mal-oh), the lone beacon star to brighten up the southern sky. On the night of the new moon (November 4), the star shines due south around 8 p.m., and on the night of the full moon (November 19), Fomalhaut stands due south around 7 p.m. This is in keeping with the general scheme of things: new moon to full moon represents a period of about two weeks, with every single star in the heavens (with the exception of our Sun) returning to the same place in the sky one hour earlier than it did the fortnight before.

When due south, Fomalhaut climbs to its highest point in the sky -- its "noontime" on center stage. Not that Fomalhaut is all that high even then. At its loftiest, our feature star is still lower than the winter solstice noonday Sun, and spends less time above the horizon than the Sun on the shortest day of the year.

Fomalhaut, a star residing in the Southern Hemisphere, is a seasonal visitor, not a permanent resident -- but then, that's what makes the star's presence so special. It's not like the stars of the Big Dipper which accompany us every night of the year. Speaking of the Big Dipper, can you find it, now that you have found Fomalhaut?

Ah, you might find it difficult. That's because the Big Dipper falls to its lowest point in the sky at the same time Fomalhaut reaches its highest. In fact, southern states can't see the Big Dipper at all at this time, because it's under the horizon. (If you stay up late enough, you'll eventually see it in your northeast sky.) Even in northern states, you need an unobstructed view to see the Big Dipper. It sits on or near the northern horizon, looking like a great big frying pan resting on a stovetop.

Irony of ironies, perhaps, Fomalhaut shows you the North Star when the Big Dipper drops out of sight. First, look for the four stars of the Square of Pegasus high in the sky, to the upper left of Fomalhaut. Focus on the the two righthand stars, Scheat and Markab. Drawing a line (or arc) from Fomalhaut through these two stars takes you to Polaris, the North Star, everytime. Scheat, the northern (or top) star stands about halfway between Fomalhaut and Polaris.

If you're sufficiently far north (about thirty-five degrees or higher), extend this arc downward to find the pointer stars on the bowl of the Big Dipper. They're due north -- at their lowest -- at the same time Fomalhaut culminates due south.

copyright 2002 by Bruce McClure

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