Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Month They Call November

My friends, if you know the song that the title know some obscure music.

But I confess November is my favorite month.  I can't help it.  I love the fall, with cool temperatures and beautifully colored leaves.  I love the early sunsets and long dark nights, growing ever longer as the month progresses.  I love the holiday season, with Thanksgiving leading right into Christmas.

Okay, you got me.  I also love November because I was born in it!  ;D  So let's talk a little about what you can expect to see in the skies during this wonderful month.

You've got some great opportunities for planet watching this month.  Mercury and Venus are putting on a lovely show in the early evening sky, just after sunset.  The trick is you need a super-flat western horizon to see them.  But oh boy, the view is worth it!  If you can get outside on the evening of the 13th or 14th, Mercury and Venus will be very close to one another, and about as far from the Sun as Mercury is going to get for a while.  Give it a try - seeing Mercury even with the unaided eye is something most people have never done!  Let brilliant Venus guide your eye (it is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon).  Mercury will be a smaller star-like object within 2 degrees (about 2 fingers-width) of the bright planet, closer even than in the image below.

Venus and Mercury at sunset on April 5, 2010 by Manu Arregi Biziola.  Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Jupiter also graces the evening skies, looking like a stunning bright white star.  The largest planet in the solar system is rising near sunset, and so it is visible nearly all night long.  You've probably seen Jupiter in the evening sky already - it's pretty darn hard to miss!  It's hovering around between the constellations Aries, Pisces and Cetus...and none of those constellations have any bright stars in them.  So Jupiter is shining all alone in a fairly dark area of sky, which only makes it look that much more impressive.  To give you a sense of how bright Jupiter is, check out the picture below. 

Jupiter seen with the Full Moon in 2009 by Jens Hackman.  Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Even with a Full Moon ablaze in the sky, Jupiter stands out quite nicely.  Imagine how amazing it will look when all alone!  We'll be observing Jupiter for sure at our star party this weekend.  You haven't really seen Jupiter until you've seen it through a telescope!  Observing begins at sunset on November 12th here at the Abbitt Observatory, and as always, it's free!  Here's hoping for clear skies!

If you're hoping to see Saturn or Mars, you'll need to go outside during the pre-dawn hours...and now that we've changed back to Eastern Standard Time, that means being outside in the very early morning...perhaps around 4:30AM.  Your reward for bring an early riser will be a view of the Red Planet shining in the south, and the golden-yellow "star" of Saturn appearing low on the eastern horizon just before the Sun.  It's interesting to see these two planets in the same sky, since they both exhibit such distinct colors.  Towards the end of the month, they'll even be about the same brightness, so see if you can notice the color difference between Mars and Saturn.  Even if you can't, they will both be quite beautiful, as you can tell from the image below.

Saturn (left) and Mars (right)  flank the Beehive Cluster in June of 2006 by Tunc Tezel.  
Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Maybe you prefer something more showy than just planets hanging around in the sky.  Well November can oblige.  The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks on November 17th every year, and this year is no exception.  You may remember the Leonids from the meteor storms of the early 2000s.  While no storm is predicted for this year, we will still pass through a stream of debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, resulting in a higher-than-normal rate of meteors being visible all coming from the direction of the constellation Leo.  Since Leo rises around midnight at this time of the year, put the East at your back and watch for shooting stars any time after sunset on November 17th.  Your best view is likely to be had during the wee morning hours of November 18th.  Since the Moon will be on the wane, it too will rise late, giving you some time to see the meteors against the backdrop of a dark sky.  No telescope required for this event - you want to be able to see as much of the sky as possible.  Patience is the key with meteor showers - set up a lawn chair and watch the sky.  The longer you watch the more meteors you will see as your eyes adjust to the darkness.  Enjoy!

The 1999 peak of the Leonid meteor shower by Juan Carlos Casado.
The image is a 20 minute exposure and captured several meteors.
Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!

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