By Deane Morrison
University of Minnesota
As Halloween slips into November, a combination of "moon, stars and Mars" pulls a celestial version of trick or treat. Or should we say, trick and treat.
First, the treat: Mars, rising before midnight on Halloween night, appears next to the lovely Beehive star cluster in Cancer. The trick: An interfering bright moon largely spoils our view of this pleasing pair. Early risers may, however, catch a glimpse of them after the moon has set (5:40 a.m. CST) but well before the sun rises (6:50 a.m.) the next morning. Mars and the Beehive will then be high in the south.
Those who have trouble getting up early do get one bit of luck, though. We switch back to standard time that night, so we get an extra hour to sleep. (Mars and the Beehive will be close again the night of Nov, 1-2, but there will be no break from moonlight.)
After that, Mars quickly moves away from the Beehive. During November it travels almost 10 degrees eastward against the background of stars, ending up in Leo. Earth will soon catch up to Mars in the orbital race, and as the gap narrows the Red Planet steadily recaptures its ruby glory. It brightens noticeably and rises earlier each night, coming up around 8:30 p.m. by month's end.
Though not as high as Mars, Saturn is also well up before dawn. If you have a small telescope, watch as its rings increase their tilt and return this jewel of a planet to its normal appearance.
Recently, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope picked up a gigantic new ring around Saturn. Unlike the familiar rings, which hug the planet, the new one lies about 4.8 to 7.8 million miles from Saturn.
The ring is tilted 27 degrees from the inner ring plane and registers a chilly minus 316 degrees F. It seems to consist of material shed by Phoebe, an outer moon of Saturn. Even more astounding, some of the material appears to have migrated inward and stuck to the leading face of Iapetus, another Saturnian moon, and blackened it.
"It's not very thick," said University of Minnesota astronomy professor Terry Jones of the coating on Iapetus, "but it's blacker than the flattest black spray paint you can get at the hardware store." The discovery offers an explanation of Iapetus' peculiar "dark on one side, bright on the other" coloring.
As November goes by, Venus begins to bow out of the morning sky. Rising well behind Saturn and sinking every day, the queen of planets is getting ready to disappear on another trip behind the sun.
November also brings the Leonid meteor shower, and this year's should be one of the stronger showings. It lasts several days, with a peak predicted for Nov. 17. Look the night of the 16th-17th, beginning about 11 p.m. Meteors will radiate from a point near Mars, in the Sickle of stars outlining the head of Leo. The Leonids are typically very fast and bright, and more than half can be expected to leave persistent trails.
November's full "hunter's" moon falls on Nov. 2. It rises around 4:33 p.m., while the sun is still up. Thus, if the weather cooperates, we may see a sky framed by a red sun in the west and a round, pearly white moon in the east.
As for stars, the Great Square of Pegasus dominates the southern sky in mid-evening. Below it, the Circlet of Pisces is easy to find in dark skies. A telescope may help you find Uranus, which is now directly below the Circlet, a little closer to it than the Circlet is to the Great Square.
If you've never seen Andromeda, our sister galaxy, this is the month to try. In mid-evening and mid-month its fuzzy oval will be almost directly overhead, between the Great Square and the W-shaped form of Cassiopeia.
Find U of M astronomers and links at www.astro.umn.edu.