Published on Thursday, 03 January 2013 09:58
Written by Deane Morrison, U of M Extension
Bright planets in the morning and evening skies and a favorable outlook for the Leonid meteor shower are all on tap as November rolls around.
Venus, still a bright "morning star," is slowly falling toward the predawn horizon as it heads into temporary oblivion behind the sun. But the queen of planets has a new court. Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, and Saturn are making their way up in the morning sky.
Take a look about 45 minutes before sunrise on the 11th, when a crescent moon appears west of Venus, with Spica below and Saturn far to the lower left of its three companions. The next morning, a thinner moon hovers west of Saturn and slightly higher, which may help you find the ringed planet. On the 26th and 27th, Venus and Saturn make their closest approach as they glide past each other. Venus is by far the brighter of the two.
Jupiter, the other planetary royalty, rules the sky most of the night. The king of planets is already as bright as it will get, even though it's not till early December that Earth laps it in the orbital race. Its yellowish globe rises within two hours of sunset as November begins, but by December Jupiter will be coming up by nightfall.
This month Jupiter, now sandwiched between the horns of Taurus, the bull, also moves closer to the bright star Aldebaran, the bull's eye. Also, like every other object that rises in the east, Jupiter moves westward across the sky during the night. Try looking an hour before sunrise between the 21st and the 27th, when Saturn is high enough to find easily. You'll see Jupiter in the west, Venus and Saturn in the east, and Leo, the lion, high in the south. You may even catch Mercury rising far below Saturn.
In the mid-evening hours, the Milky Way makes a high arch from east to west. It may be easiest to see it by looking north, from where it appears as a drooping arch. Below and near the center of the arch is Polaris, the North Star, and above it is the oval smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy.
The Leonid meteor shower peaks around 4 a.m. on the 17th. No moon will be around to interfere, so it ought to be fairly good this year. Meteors radiate from the Sickle of stars outlining the head of Leo. Of course, the usual caveats about the unpredictability of meteor showers apply.
November's moon was called the beaver moon by Algonquin Indians, because this is the time when the rodents are busiest. Also, human hunters were busy laying in a supply of pelts for the winter. It reaches fullness the morning of the 28th, just after setting, so the best time to see it would be about a half hour before moonset in your area.
In astronomy news, a planet has been found orbiting one of the twin stars that are the sun's closest neighbors of any appreciable size. The two stars, called Alpha Centauri A and B, are just over four light-years away. The newfound planet orbits Alpha Centauri B, the smaller of the pair. It is definitely several times bigger than Earth and is reported to orbit at a distance 10 times closer than Mercury is to the sun, so it's one sizzling sister to Earth. The only star closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri A and B is Proxima Centauri, a tiny red star that may, along with the Alpha pair, form a triple star system. All are part of the southern constellation Centaurus, the centaur.
The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses. For more information and viewing schedules, see:
Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d.umn.edu/planet
Twin Cities, Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics (during fall and spring semesters): www.astro.umn.edu/outreach/pubnight
Check out the astronomy programs at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum ExploraDome: www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/ForGroups/ExploraDome/index.htm