Celestial News: Big events in November skies | SteamboatToday.com

Celestial News: Big events in November skies

Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Mercury and Venus are the only planets that can pass in front of the Sun as seen from Earth. These transits are relatively rare, happening only a few times each century. On the morning of Nov. 11, Mercury will transit across the Sun for most of North America. The next transit won’t occur until November 2032.
Photo by Jimmy Westlake, 2016

With the fall back to standard time this month, darkness comes an hour earlier and that means star gazing can begin earlier in the evening, too. There are several big sky events to enjoy this month.

Perhaps the most unusual celestial event happening this month is the transit of the innermost planet, Mercury, across the face of the sun on Nov. 11. The alignment of worlds required to produce this tiniest of eclipses occurs only about 13 or 14 times each century, so the event is not exactly rare, but certainly uncommon.

Observing a transit of Mercury does require a telescope and a safe solar filter or projection technique. Warning: Looking directly at the sun, for any reason, without a proper solar filter can cause permanent retinal damage. Don’t do it.

For Coloradans, the transit is already in progress when the sun rises around 6:50 a.m. Nov. 11. Mercury will appear as a tiny, round, black dot in silhouette against the sun’s dazzling face. The sun’s face has been spotless for 75% of the days this year, according to the NASA website spaceweather.com, so, chances are, Mercury will be the only black dot on the sun on transit day. The transit lasts all morning, as Mercury slowly makes its way across the sun, ending at 11:04 a.m.

Mercury and Venus are the only planets that can pass in front of the sun, as seen from Earth — plus the moon, of course. Transits of Venus are exceptionally rare, occurring in eight-year pairs separated by more than a century. The most recent pair happened in 2004 and 2012. The next pair of Venus transits occur in 2117 and 2125. 

Transits of Mercury always happen in May or November. The last one was only three years ago, on May 9, 2016. The next one happens in 13 years, on November 13, 2032.

If you do not own a telescope suitable for solar observing, don’t fret. The Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs Sky Club will host a free public Mercury transit observing event from sunrise until 11 a.m. at the new Ball Observatory, weather permitting. Drop by and see the Mercury transit safely and clearly with CMC astronomer Paul McCudden to answer your questions.

Several meteor showers reach a climax this month, beginning with the twin Taurid meteor showers. The Northern Taurid meteors stream out from a point near the well-known Pleiades star cluster and reach a peak on Nov. 5. The Southern Taurid meteors fan out from a point just a little south of the Pleiades and peak on Nov. 12. These showers are not particularly rich in meteors, typically five to 10 per hour at the peak, but they make up for it with a large number of slow, bright fireballs. 

A little later in the month, on Nov. 17, the annual Leonid meteor shower reaches a peak. Every 33 years or so, the Leonid meteor shower turns into a meteor storm with as many as a hundred thousand meteors falling in an hour. That’s what happened in the years 1833 and 1966 when witnesses said that it looked like it was snowing fire. In 2001, the rate was “only” 1,100 meteors per hour. This year, being an off year, you can expect to see about 15 meteors an hour, shooting out of the constellation Leo after midnight.

On Thanksgiving evening, Nov. 28, three planets and the moon will align for a beautiful sunset sky show. Jupiter and Saturn have been lighting up our evening sky for months, but, on that night, they will be joined by the evening star Venus and the slender crescent moon. Venus will appear closest to the moon, only 2 degrees away, with Jupiter down below and Saturn up above.

You’ll be able to cover up all four worlds with your outstretched hand. Catch the show about an hour after sunset, around 5:45 p.m., but before the moon sets at 6:42 p.m. You’ll need a clear view of the southwestern horizon. 

Jimmy Westlake retired from full time teaching at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs in 2017, after 19 years as their professor of physical sciences. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography at jwestlake.com.

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