The Evening Moon Wades through the Water Constellations and Blue Planets, Taurus’ Horns Strikes Sparks, and Vesta is Visually Easier!
Southern Taurids Meteor Shower Peak
The annual Northern Taurids Meteor shower delivers meteors to observers worldwide from September 23rd to November 19th annually. It will peak overnight on Monday-Tuesday this week. The long-lasting, weak shower is derived from debris dropped by the passage of a periodic comet named 2P/Encke, the second such comet to be discovered, in 1786. (Periodic comets such as 1P/Halley and 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbit in our solar system on a regular schedule, never venturing too close to the sun to be disintegrated.)
The cometary debris’ larger than average grain size often produce colorful fireballs. The peak of activity, when up to five meteors per hour are predicted, will occur at about 1 am EST (or 06:00 Greenwich Mean Time). At that time, Earth will be traversing the densest part of the comet’s debris train. On the peak night, the waxing first quarter moon will set at midnight, leaving the post-midnight sky dark enough for meteor watching.
You can start watching for Northern Taurids as soon as it’s dark. The best viewing time will occur in the hours after midnight local time, when the shower’s radiant, located in western Taurus, will be highest in the sky. (When a shower’s radiant of low in the sky, the local horizon hides many of the meteors.) I wouldn’t make a special trip to see so few meteors — but keep an eye out for them if you are already outside on a clear night.
There are more meteor showers coming soon!
The Moon and Planets
This is the week of the lunar month when our natural satellite will be conveniently placed in the evening sky worldwide. On Monday morning at 10:24 am EST, the moon reached its first quarter phase. A that time, the angle between the sun, Earth, and the moon is 90°, causing us to see the moon half-illuminated on its eastern side. (East on the moon is opposite to east on the Earth because the moon is tidally locked with Earth — so they’re mirroring one another.) The term “first quarter” refers to how much of the moon’s orbit it has completed since the previous new moon — not the way the moon appears from Earth.
At first quarter, an astronaut standing at the middle of the moon’s near-side hemisphere would be experiencing sunrise. The nearly horizontal sunlight there would cast long black shadows from any elevated surface and would render deep craters as dark pits. At the same time, if she were standing at what we see as the midway point along the moon’s illuminated edge, it would be noon for her — with the sun directly overhead.
As the moon waxes fuller in the evening sky every night (and even hour-by-hour), the “sunrise zone” is migrating west — continuously casting new strips of the moon in stark relief along the terminator, the pole-to-pole line that divides the lit and dark hemispheres. That’s the most spectacular region to look at in your binoculars and telescopes.
As for the moon’s trip through the sky this week, it will be wading through the modest water constellations! The moon starts the week among the dim stars of Capricornus (the Sea-Goat). During mid-week, the moon will cross the large constellation of Aquarius (the Water-Bearer) — passing less than a palm’s width below (or to the celestial south of) Neptune on Wednesday. Then on Friday through Sunday, the now much brighter and fuller moon will traverse the stars of Cetus (the Whale) and Pisces (the Fishes), ending up about a palm’s width to the lower right (or celestial southeast) of Uranus on Sunday night.
For those of us living at mid-northern latitudes, the end of daylight savings time means that sunset is occurring at around 5 pm local time this week. And the continuously earlier sunsets from now until the Winter Solstice on December 21 means that star parties can start in late afternoon! The Southern Hemisphere is, of course, starting to see the extra daylight we’ve lost as longer days and shorter nights.
Mercury will be lost from view this week while it swings close to the sun. But observers with special equipment can see Mercury during its solar conjunction next Monday, November 11 — when it will cross the disk of the sun for five hours!
Now shining at a spectacularly bright magnitude of -3.85 and gradually ascending out of the surrounding evening twilight, Venus will be fairly easy to spot for a brief period after sunset this week, if you can find a low open horizon to the west-southwest. The planet will set at 6 pm local time.
Jupiter will be setting in the west soon after 7 pm local time this week, but the earlier-arriving sunsets of November are still giving us time to view the spectacularly bright planet, albeit through a LOT of intervening atmosphere. As the sky begins to darken this week, look for the giant planet sitting about a fist diameter above the southwestern horizon. Once it disappears in a few weeks, we’ll have to wait for Jupiter to begin a new season of viewing next February, when it will gleam in the southeastern pre-dawn sky.
Yellow-tinted Saturn, which is rather less bright than Jupiter, is still a reasonably good option for viewing in backyard telescopes. Look for it in the southwestern evening sky. At dusk, it will be located about two fist diameters above the southern horizon. It will set in the west-southwest at 9 pm local time. All year, Saturn has been located just above (or to the celestial northeast of) the stars that form the teapot-shaped constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer), and also about 2.5 fist diameters to the upper left (or celestial east) of Jupiter.
A look at Saturn is well worth dusting off your old telescope! Once the sky is dark, even a small telescope will show Saturn’s rings and several of its brighter moons, especially Titan! Because Saturn’s axis of rotation is tipped about 27° from vertical (a bit more than Earth’s axis), we can see the top surface of its rings, and its moons can arrange themselves above, below, or to either side of the planet. During this week, Titan will migrate counter-clockwise around Saturn, moving from above Saturn tonight (Sunday) to the lower left of the planet next Sunday. (Remember that your telescope will flip the view around.)
Distant and dim, blue Neptune is visible from dusk to about 2 am local time. It is among the stars of eastern Aquarius (the Water-Bearer), and sits less than a finger’s width to the right (or celestial west) of a medium-bright star named Phi (φ) Aquarii. Both blue Neptune and that golden-coloured star will appear together in the field of view of a backyard telescope at low power. The distance between the star and the planet is steadily increasing due to Neptune’s westward retrograde orbital motion.
Blue-green Uranus reached opposition on October 28. On that night it was closest to Earth for this year — and its minimal distance from Earth caused it to shine at a peak brightness of magnitude 5.7 and to appear slightly larger in telescopes. Visually, the slow-moving planet will look almost as good for days to come. If you can wait until after 11 pm local time to view it, when it is higher in the sky, you’ll be looking through the least amount of Earth’s disturbing atmosphere.
Right now, Uranus is sitting a palm’s width to the left (or to the celestial east) of the “V” of Pisces (the Fishes), below (or to the celestial south of) the stars of Aries (the Ram) and is just a palm’s width above the circlet of stars that form the head of Cetus (the Whale). Uranus is actually bright enough to see in binoculars and small telescopes under dark skies. You can use the three modest stars that form the top of the head of the whale (or sea-monster in some tales) to locate Uranus for the next several months — because the distant planet moves so slowly in its orbit.
Next week the large asteroid Vesta will reach opposition and its best visibility for 2019. Meanwhile, for the next several evenings, the orbital motion of Vesta will carry it closely past the medium-bright star Omicron (o) Tauri, which marks Taurus the Bull’s hoof — setting up an easy way to find and view the magnitude 6.6 asteroid. The pair of objects will appear together in the field of view of a telescope at medium magnification.
Reddish Mars is becoming nicely visible now in the eastern pre-dawn sky while it continues to climb away from the pre-dawn sun. From now until October, 2020, Mars will continuously grow in brightness in the sky, and in apparent size in telescopes. In fact, the 2020 Mars opposition is a terrific excuse to get a telescope for the Holidays so you can follow the planet all spring and summer!
When Mars rises at about 5:05 am local time, look for bright, white Spica, the brightest star in Virgo (the Maiden), sitting just a few finger widths to Mars’ lower right (or celestial south). By next Sunday morning, Mars’ eastern orbital motion will carry the Red Planet closer to that star. The 20.8 light-minutes-distant reddish planet and the 250 light-years-distant star will appear together in the field of view of binoculars.
Keep looking up, and enjoy the sky with Star Walk!