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    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

November 2010 Events – Meteors, Moons, and more

Late-breaking news – could Comet Hartley 2 produce a meteor shower to open November? See this NASA news release.

There’s no single, mind-boggling astronomical event for November, but it’s a nice month to keep an eye out for a number of things – and some are especially interesting if you like getting up early.

But first, let’s not forget the king of planets and the Demon Star!

Jupiter et al, plus Algol

Jupiter is in its prime – and dominating our prime-time observing – nice and high, nice and big, and with dancing moons that you can even see in binoculars if you can only find a way to hold them steady enough. Fortunately, there are several neat techniques pictured here that you could use to hold any binocular steadier. I used the “rifle sling” technique pictured on that site with my 15X70s and it helps significantly.

When you are looking at Jupiter’s moons, it’s fun simply because they are constantly changing from night to night – even from hour to hour. It’s also fun because they are surprisingly diverse worlds. In fact, the exploration of large moons throughout the solar system has been a constant source of surprise. So I suggest two things.

First, learn more about Jupiter’s moons by going here. (Pay special attention to the four “Galilean Moons – those are the ones you see.)

Second, use this Javascript utility at Sky and Telescope to figure out which moon is which when you actually observe them..

And while we’re on the subject of handy tools at Sky and Telescope, also use their utility to figure out when it would be a good time to catch the surprisingly elusive Demon Star – aka Algol – when at its minimum. This is something you don’t need binoculars to see – it’s best done with the naked eye. I explained it in more detail last month.

For me, this month that utility shows a couple of good dates – that is, dates when the minimum comes at a reasonable hour for local observing: –

  • 11/15/2010 @ 9:41 pm
  • 11/18/2010 @ 6:30 pm

Early morning lunacy

I’m marking November 5th on my calendar as a chance to see an extremely thin crescent moon. Now I will be the first to admit this is kind of silly, but it’s also fun and just being up to witness the dawn, hear the birds, and see a brilliant – and incidentally, very thin crescent Venus – are more than enough reason to give this a try, weather permitting.

For me, Venus will be rising at about 6:32 am (49 minutes before sunrise), and a waning crescent Moon just below it (less than 3 degrees) at about 6:44 am. Sunrise is at 7:21, so that means all of this will be taking place in bright twilight – and that means I need to use binoculars. I also need to know where to look and when. My guide will be the bright star Spica. As Venus rises, Spica will be about 7 degrees directly above it at Azimuth 112 degrees. That’s about two fists held at arm’s length south of due east.

If I’m able to catch this Moon, it will be only 18 hours from new – the tiniest slither of a moon I’ve ever seen. As a bonus, viewing Venus in a telescope will show it, too, as a thin crescent. Having passed between us and the Sun, it will become more illuminated each day as it draws away from us, moving faster than us in a shorter orbit. (It will be noticeably higher in our sky each morning as well.) At about -4.4 it will be incredibly bright, so even in the twilight should be easy to see.

However – to see these events you need perfectly clear skies and an unobstructed eastern horizon. When you consider all the odds – clear skies on the morning of such an event, a good location, and the ability to squeeze this into your personal schedule, events such as this are frequently a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Seen that way, they are quite exciting and worth the extra effort.

‘ey Tauro! Aqui!

Yep right here, Tauro. All month you may at any time encounter a Taurid meteor. That’s “Taurid” as in “Taurus the Bull,” so think of them as charging bulls, plummeting across your evening sky. It’s hard to call these an event because we’re really talking about two showers, both of which appear to originate in Taurus and neither of which have a strong peak. Technically the “South Taurids” will peak on November 5 and the “North Taurids” about November 11/12.

But I wouldn’t get too excited about those dates. Personally, I don’t go looking for Taurids. Sitting, staring at the sky to see maybe one or two meteors an hour exhausts my patience immediately. Instead, I just remind myself when doing other observing during November, to take note of any bright meteors I see and see if they can be traced back to the general vicinity of Taurus.

The Pleiades mark the shoulder of Taurus the Bull, and they’re as good a marker for the radiant of the North Taurids as any – roughly speaking. The shower lasts for more than a month – from mid-October to near the end of November. Like all meteors, they are best seen when there is little Moon in the sky, and your chances of seeing any get better as the shower radiant gets higher in the sky – in this case you may see some any time after sunset, but your chances improve right up until about 1 am. They remain good well into the morning hours.

Taurids tend to move slowly and be bright. So if you see a good meteor, see if you can trace it back to somewhere near the Pleaides. If you can, chances are it was a Taurid – part of the dust trail left by Comet 2P/Encke.

Enter the Lion with a Gentle Roar

Now the Leonids are a much different story – they’re a shower with a clear peak.

With the Leonids – a shower named because they appear to radiate from a spot within the constellation of Leo the Lion – you can pick a morning, cross your fingers, and hope for luck – either November 17 or November 18.

The operative word is “morning.” Leo doesn’t put in an appearance until midnight, and there will be a pretty bright Moon right up until a few hours before sunrise. So to get a good solid hour of meteor observing in before the dawn starts to wash them out, pick a morning (Nov. 17 or 18) and check to see when local Moon set is. (You can find a table for your location here.) Your goal is to observe from about when the Moon sets until about one and a half hours before sunrise.

You can look anywhere – just get comfortable, look up, and when you see a meteor, see if it would trace back in the general direction of the bright star Regulus In Leo. If so, it’s a Leonid.

From time to time the Leonids have really been spectacular. But lately they have just been a nice little shower where you can expect to see perhaps half of the Perseids you might see in August. I never see as many meteors as observers at really dark sites. In the case of the Leonids, I would be happy if I averaged one every five minutes or so.

It’s enough, though, to keep me looking up and enjoying the quiet solitude of a morning sky.

Calendar for November

1-18 – Be on the lookout for Taurid meteors!

4 – NASA’s Deep Impact Spacecraft passes within 435 miles of Comet Hartley
2 – look for pictures in the news!

5 – Thin crescent Moon, crescent Venus – just before dawn.

6 – New Moon

7 – Fall back to Standard Time for most of US.

13 – First quarter Moon

15 – Algol at minimum, 9:41 pm EST

17 or 18 – Leonid meteor shower – early morning event.

18 – Algol at minimum, 6:30 pm EST

21 – Full Moon

28 – Last quarter Moon.

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