November’s grey, drizzly and snowy weather makes it one of the least popular months, perhaps even the saddest once the last of the leaves have fallen from the trees. But for amateur or professional astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere, November is when the nights reclaim their dominance as they grow ever longer, making for prime celestial viewing.
As tough as it is for professionals to spend 12-15 hours straight observing the nighttime sky, November offers amateurs and newcomers a chance to discover the wonders of our starry sky much earlier in the evening.
The month gets off to a good start from day one, when the clocks fall back to standard time: At 2 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, on the night of October 31 to November 1, it will actually be 1 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. This means we all get to enjoy an extra hour of sleep… or skywatching!
The Moon and planets
Following the “Mars-fest” that culminated in early October with the Martian opposition (Sun-Earth-Mars alignment and, consequently, the closest that Mars and Earth come to each other), the Red Planet’s diameter and brightness will diminish over the next few weeks. The gibbous Moon will draw close at around 9:30 p.m. on the evening of November 25.
The Moon will once again be our guide to the other visible planets this month. For example, at the end of the night and at dawn on November 12, the thin waning Moon will hang 6½ degrees above dazzling Venus in the east-southeast. The next morning, on November 13, the ever-thinner lunar crescent can be seen between Venus (higher) and Mercury (closer to the horizon), again in the east-southeast at dawn, 45 minutes before sunrise.
A few days later, the Moon points us to Jupiter and Saturn. First on November 18, when the lunar crescent will hang 7 degrees to the lower right of brilliant Jupiter, with Saturn appearing 3½ degrees higher up and to the left. Then on the 19th, the growing crescent will shift to the left of the two planets, creating a long triangle. These encounters between the Moon and the Jupiter-Saturn duo take place above the south-southwestern horizon after sunset and in the early evening.
A subtle lunar eclipse
The Moon will be full by the end of the month, an event that will be marked by a partial penumbral lunar eclipse—a phenomenon that will be fully visible from North America, the Pacific, and the Far East. In Quebec, this eclipse will take place between 2:32 a.m. and 6:53 a.m. EST on November 30. This fairly unremarkable phenomenon will only be discernable to the naked eye around the midway point of the eclipse, set to happen at 4:42 a.m. At that moment, Earth’s penumbra will cover 83% of the lunar disc. For a few minutes before and after the eclipse’s maximum, the Moon should be close enough to the shadowed area that we’ll be able to detect a subtle darkening along the northern part of its disc with the eye alone; this dimming is usually easier to see on properly exposed photographs.
Return of the Leonids
Every year, the month of November is when we get treated to the Leonids meteor shower, which occurs when Earth passes through the stream of dust left behind by comet Tempel-Tuttle. This year, under dark skies far from light pollution, we can hope to see about 15 meteors per hour after the Moon sets at midnight on the night of November 17-18. So keep an eye on the sky!