While the nights are getting longer—to the great delight of astronomers—the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn are still highly visible in the evening. However, the thus-far inconspicuous Mars can no longer be ignored. Its scarlet glow will grace our nights, while a spectacular total lunar eclipse will round out the palette of reds on the morning of November 8.
The giant planets remain well-positioned
As soon as the Sun goes down, the giants Jupiter and Saturn quickly stand out against the darkening sky. In early November, Saturn culminates above the southern horizon as night sets in, and although it slowly drifts downward as the weeks go by, it remains easy to see in the early evening throughout the month. For its part, Jupiter continues to dominate the night sky. It shines intensely from very high above as soon as darkness sets in and stays with us until the middle of the night.
The Moon will visit the giant planets twice in November. The waxing gibbous Moon can first be found 4½ degrees below Saturn in the early evening of November 1, while it glides just 3 degrees south of Jupiter on the evening and night of November 4-5. By month’s end, the crescent-shaped Moon lies 6 degrees below Saturn on the evening of November 28, while it will have entered its gibbous phase when it comes to within 2½ degrees of Jupiter on December 1.
Mars dominates the Winter Hexagon
Mars has been preparing for a strong comeback since early 2022. The Red Planet’s progression in its orbit allowed us to spot it earlier and earlier as its brightness increased. A few days from its opposition, which will occur on December 7, Mars is already a visual treat for observers, both with the naked eye and a telescope. It appears as a bright orange-red dot that doesn’t twinkle, and its apparent magnitude of less than –1 makes it very easy to identify in the sky. Although the Red Planet reaches opposition in early December, it will be at its minimum distance from Earth one week earlier, on November 30, at 0.544 astronomical units, or 81.4 million kilometres from us. At that point, Mars shines at magnitude –1.8, outshining every star in the sky. To catch views of its surface details through a telescope, it’s best to wait until the middle of the night when it approaches the meridian and reaches its highest point in the sky.
The apparent movement of Mars is relatively slow near its opposition. The Red Planet begins the month between the two stars that mark the tips of Taurus’s horns, Elnath and Tianguan (Zeta Tauri), then slowly works its way west, covering a total distance of only 7 degrees towards the Pleiades. For the next few months, Mars remains an easily identifiable object in the upper portion of the Winter Hexagon, within the triangular pattern formed by Capella, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse.
The Moon will also make an appearance in this region of the sky. From November 8 to 11, the waning gibbous Moon travels in a line from the heart of Taurus to the feet of Gemini, making its way beneath the Pleiades (on the 8th), above the Hyades (on the 9th) and finally above Mars (on the 10th).
A photogenic eclipse
In the early morning of November 8, as the full Moon draws close to the western horizon and prepares to disappear until the next day, it will enter the Earth’s umbral shadow and take on the reddish hue created by the refraction of the Sun’s light through our atmosphere. This total lunar eclipse promises to be spectacular for observers in Eastern Canada, not for its astronomical characteristics, but rather for its viewing conditions. In Quebec, it generally takes place shortly before moonset, and therefore very low on the western horizon. In Montreal, the Moon sets at the very end of totality.
The full Moon always seems much bigger and more imposing when it’s close to the horizon. In fact, our brain doesn’t process size in the same way when the Moon is higher in the sky, lost among the other stars, than when it is near other elements of known size. If our brain can compare the Moon to a tree, a building, the outline of a mountain or any other landform, it will interpret its size differently and deceive us about its true apparent diameter.
For this total lunar eclipse, our satellite, with its colour and apparent size, will be nothing short of stunning. Although we may miss the end of totality as the Moon sinks toward the horizon and the sky becomes increasingly brighter as daybreak approaches, this eclipse still promises to be a spectacular event to behold with the naked eye or to photograph.
The particular circumstances of the eclipse are the following: The Moon begins to enter the Earth’s umbra at 4:09 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Totality starts at 5:16 a.m., peaks at 5:59 a.m. and continues until 6:41 a.m. The show ends when the Moon completely exits the Earth’s umbral shadow at 7:49 a.m. In Montreal, however, the Moon sets at 6:50 a.m.; the Sun rises at 6:43 a.m., and civil dawn will have begun at 6:12 a.m. Despite these challenges, this event is a must-see, as the next total lunar eclipse fully visible from Quebec will only occur in May 2025.