In his book on the Leonid meteor showers, “The Heavens on Fire,” Mark Littmann writes that the Leonid meteor storm of 1833 was so intense, estimated from records to be in excess of 72,000 an hour, that terrified viewers thought the world was coming to an end. Some American Indian tribes called it “the year the stars fell.” Approximately every 33 years, the Leonids put on a remarkable display. In 1966 an intense storm gave estimates of 144,000 meteors an hour which led, as 1999 approached, to concerns of satellites being damaged by the next expected peak. In the end, the 1999 display peaked around 4,000 an hour over Europe and no space vehicles were damaged. NASA, to be on the safe side, does not schedule shuttle launches during meteor shower peaks. What will 2006 bring? Estimates range from a low of 45 to a high of 100 meteors an hour. The stream, made up of debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, will radiate out of the head of Leo and appear as very fast, bright meteors that leave persistent trails. That the Leonids peak very near the new moon will be an aid in viewing.
Focus on the planets
Mercury provides the planetary headlines this month as it transits, or passes across the face of the sun as viewed from Earth, on Nov. 8. The transit starts at 2:12 p.m. EST and lasts for five hours and will not take place again until 2016. A telescope will be needed to spot the tiny black dot, but remember you must have a filter labeled as safe for viewing the sun! For the casual viewer the best time to see Mercury is on Nov. 26 when it is well up on the southeastern horizon about 40 minutes before dawn.
Venus was at superior conjunction, or on the opposite side of the sun from Earth, on Oct. 27 and will not edge out of the solar glare in time to be seen in November.
Mars suffers a nearly similar fate as Venus but may be spotted at the very end of the month low on the southeastern horizon just to the lower left of Mercury about an hour before sunrise.
Jupiter also is lost to viewing in November, rising a scant half hour before the sun at month’s end.
Saturn rises in the late evening hours in the east among the stars of Leo the Lion. Saturn and Regulus rise together about midnight and stay together all month long. A favorable tilt to the ring system and the easy spotting of six of Saturn’s moons by telescope make the ringed planet worth staying up late to view.
Uranus lies in the south where it may be found situated about halfway between Fomalhaut and the Great Square of Pegasus during the early evening hours.
Neptune is high in the south among the stars of Capricornus as night falls. A finder chart for locating these two remote planets may be found in the May issue of Sky & Telescope.
1 Sunrise, 6:13 a.m.; sunset, 4:24 p.m.
3 Moon at perigee or closest approach to the Earth today.
5 Full moon, 7:58 a.m. The full moon of November is called the Frost Moon, Beaver Moon or, as the full moon after the Harvest Moon, the Hunter’s Moon.
6 Aldebaran, the “red eye of the bull,” shines below and to the right of the moon tonight.
12 Moon in last quarter, 12:46 p.m. Note that Saturn lies directly below the moon and the bright star Regulus a bit below the ringed planet.
13 On the pre-dawn eastern horizon, the moon lies very close to Regulus with Saturn immediately above.
15 The moon is at apogee or greatest distance from the Earth today.
17 This is a peak night for the Leonid meteor shower. More about this important annual shower in the opening paragraph.
20 New moon, 5:17 p.m.
22 The sun enters the astrological sign Sagittarius but astronomically is just leaving Libra.
23 The sun enters Scorpius on the ecliptic.
26 Look to the southeastern horizon about an hour before sunrise where Mercury shines above the horizon with faint reddish Mars peeking over the horizon to its lower left. Spica is far to Mercury’s upper right.
28 Moon in first quarter, 1:29 a.m. Far below the moon is the “autumn star” Fomalhaut.
30 The sun enters Ophiuchus on the ecliptic however this is not one of the 12 traditional houses of the Sun. Sunrise, 6:51 a.m.; sunset, 3:57 p.m.
Clair Wood taught physics and chemistry for more than a decade at Eastern Maine Technical College in Bangor.