Note that all times mentioned below are in EST unless otherwise noted.

Venus and Mercury

Morning viewing in November/December

Venus continues to rise in the morning sky in November and December and crosses Leo in October, enters Virgo, then Libra and ends the year in Scorpius - the largest swath of sky travelled by any planet. Conjunctions occur on several dates but no bright star like Regulus is near Venus until it passes Spica on Nov 17 with about 4° separation. However, this is only the last of the interesting groupings of planets with Virgo and first magnitude Spica nearby. On November 12, 13 and 14, the last crescent Moon passes both Venus and Mercury which reaches its greatest westward elongation on November 10. At sunrise on November 12, the separation between Venus and the Moon is about 5 degrees but it shrinks to 2 degrees in daylight when Venus and Moon set on the western horizon around 16:00. This is certainly an opportunity to see Venus with the naked eye in daytime with the nearby Moon acting as a guide. Look left of the Moon in the late afternoon for a bright point of light.


Jupiter and Saturn

Both setting in the west in early evening

The two largest gas giant planets reached opposition in our sky this past July, and now that November is here they have lost star billing. In November and December, they drop lower and lower in the SW sky and get into the murky air near the horizon. By the end of December, the pair are setting only an hour or less after sunset, and so the viewing season for Jupiter and Saturn will be drawing to a close.

Jupiter still shines brightly even into December at magnitude -2, but the surface disk has shrunk to 33" of arc. Saturn continues for November and December to shine at magnitude 0.6 and maintains a diameter of about 16 arc-seconds.The rings presents themselves at an angle of 21 degrees or so only a bit less than maximum in September.


Mars

Viewing still good in November/December (evening sky)

Mars viewing continues. The planet is in the sky all night; it is still large and bright and now above the murky air on the horizon at the start of the evening. The diagram from Starry Night below shows the changing size and surface features as we progress to year end. After opposition October 13, the apparent size and brightness of the planet drop but it is unnoticeable until late November. Mars is now higher in the sky - almost 30° at 19:00 on November 1. It will definitely be a prominent object on Halloween! Take every opportunity to view as winter (cloudy) weather is coming. In mid-November, the side of Mars with Valles Marineris and the volcanoes Olympus Mons will face Earth. As weather changes in December and January, of course, the cold and smaller size of Mars will deter extended viewing, but then all good things eventually come to an end.

More information about the Mars apparition this year is provided in the September/October 2020 issue of SGN. A general viewing guide is provided by Fraser Cain (Universe Today) here.


November 5 and 12: Taurid meteor showers (evening sky, best after midnight)

The RASC Handbook gives three meteor showers in November (see November 17 for Leonids) which actually extend in duration from October into December. More recent sources give the peak of the South Taurid meteors as Oct 10 rather than the November 5 as in the RASC Handbook, and the earlier date is probably correct. In any case, all are minor showers and occasionally produce a fireball, referred to as "Halloween Fireballs."

Neither of the Taurid showers has a prominent peak, so look for them whenever the Moon is absent in October and November. Although they are not prolific showers (only 5-10 meteors per hour) there is a higher percentage of fireballs. These flash by at the slowest speed for meteors, 30 km/s, and so provide fall skies with some interest when clouds are absent. Look to the east towards Taurus and then Orion as they rise in our sky.

There is more here about these two showers specifically from EarthSky.org.


November 14: Spot the old Moon

To round off the planetary spectacles this week, on the morning of November 14, there is a challenging old Moon opportunity when it is less than one day before new - 19.2 hours. This will be one of the better old Moon spotting chances, since the Moon rises almost straight above the Sun but a whole hour ahead of it. Do give it a go.


November 17: Leonid meteor shower (evening sky, best after midnight)

This is again an off year for the Leonids which have a 33 year activity cycle; the last peak was in 2001 or so. The RASC handbook gives 15 per hour on the night of November 16/17 when the Moon is a thin first crescent that sets early and leaves the winter sky dark for meteor watching. At 70 km/s, these are the fastest meteors in the sky beating out even the speedy Perseids by 10 km/s. The radiant for the Leonids is depicted below.

These meteors were spectacular in 1833 when an estimated 100 000 per hour lit up the sky. In modern times, in 1966, a very short peak interval was observed of 40 per second! (over 140 000 per hour!!). The most recent 33 year peak was in 2001 and was observed by more than a dozen members of the Lion's Head and Wiarton high school astronomy clubs as well as the Bruce County Astronomical Society at a site overlooking the Beaver Valley. It was a memorable night, and at times there were two or three trails visible simultaneously. The estimate was several thousand Leonids per hour at the peak. If the cycle is maintained, then November in 2034 will be the next great Leonid meteor shower!


November 18/19 and December 16/17: Jupiter-Saturn and crescent Moon

A nice grouping of the gas giants and a five day old crescent Moon happens on November 18 and 19 with the moon about 5 degrees away. This is repeated December 16 and 17, but the Moon is almost 10 degrees away each night. However, on December 16/17 Jupiter is closing in on Saturn and less than half a degree below it as they close for the big event on December 21. The two planets will be within a half-degree field of each other from December 16 until December 25, easily fitting into a medium power eyepiece FoV, but they are really close on December 21. See the below diagram below courtesy of Simulation Curriculum.


November 25 and December 23 (evening sky): Mars 5° north of Moon

Mars shines brightly tonight with the 11 day-old gibbous Moon 5° south of it. Even though past opposition by more than a month, Mars still glows brightly at magnitude -1.3 and showing a 15" disk (see December 1 depiction above). Take any clear skies as an opportunity to view it as it gradually recedes from Earth. There is a repeat of this on December 23 and by then, Mars is 11" across (Jan 1 view above) and -0.5 magnitude. This will pretty much bring the Mars viewing to a close until two years from now.


November 30: Penumbral lunar eclipse

A penumbral lunar eclipse is about as minimal an eclipse that can happen and still be called an eclipse. As shown in the diagram below, the Moon passes through the outer shadow of the Earth and misses the darker inner umbra by about half a moon-width at 04:44. There may be a bit of darkening visible in the upper part of the Moon, but it will be difficult to notice. Still, this eclipse will have the Moon half its width closer to the umbral border than an earlier penumbral eclipse this year (July 4) where little (if any) change in brightness was seen even in images, and nothing by eye.

Even with the Moon closer to the umbra than the previous penumbral eclipse this year, the darkening will be difficult to see by eye or in binoculars or telescopes. The Moon rises at 17:30 on November 29 and is 60° high at first contact at 02:33 November 30. Last contact is at 06:54 and the Moon sets almost two hours later at 08:48 November 30. It could not be better position-wise in the sky for this event.

As for all penumbral eclipses, images at greatest eclipse can be compared with images before or after to see if any darkening can be detected. The next good total eclipse visible in Bruce/Grey is a year from now on November 19/2021. There is an earlier total lunar eclipse May 26, but that is best seen in western Canada. For local viewers, the May 26 Moon will set in the west just as the umbral phase starts. Fred Espenak has an extensive eclipse page here with more information.


December 11: ISS splits the gap between Jupiter and Saturn!

The International Space Station (ISS) makes an interesting pass between Saturn and Jupiter on December 11 at 17:41. The gap is only 1 degree wide since Jupiter has been closing in on Saturn (see December 21 entry below), and this is only 10 days before that conjunction, so the planets are close. Note that this is the predicted time for Owen Sound and your location may not see the exact same track, or ISS may miss the gap altogether. Check Heavens Above and make sure to enter your location in the box at upper right. Here is the chart and table of times for Owen Sound. Keep your fingers crossed for clear skies!


December 12: Venus occulted by the Moon

Below horizon locally

In the dawn sky on December 12, almost the identical Moon-Venus spacing occurs as in November, a second opportunity to view the two brightest objects (next to the Sun) near each other. Again the separation decreases while the Moon and Venus cross the sky in daytime. When they set at 1520, the two are only 35 minutes of arc apart (diagram below) and continue to draw closer when below the horizon. A lunar occultation of Venus happens from 16:49 to 17:24, but this occurs below our horizon in daytime. Western Canada will observe this event in mid-afternoon and Hawaii will see the event happen during daylight with the Moon and Venus high in the sky. The following diagram is courtesy of Simulation Curriculum.

The Moon next approaches close to Mercury on December 13, which rises at 05:35. The two have a similar separation of 5° as Venus had the night before. However if you can spot the thin crescent Moon and Mercury just before they set later in daylight in the west about 16:00, then the two are under 1° apart when they slip below the horizon! This is a rare opportunity to spot Mercury in daytime using the crescent Moon as a guide!


December 13: Geminid Meteors

The Geminids are the last major shower of this year and with a predicted 120 shooting stars per hour (IMO gives 150!) and no moonlight brightening the sky at all, they are a great way to wrap up the year. The Moon is in new phase and with Gemini a winter constellation, the radiant will be high in the sky. If this wasn't winter, the Geminids would be a much better observed meteor shower by Canadians. At least you can get your cameras out to do some time lapse imaging if the sky is clear. If weather conditions are favourable this meteor show should be a very interesting show. At 35 km/s, these are not quite as slow as Taurids. The RASC handbook gives a peak at 01:00 UT December 14 or 20:00 on December 13. The diagram below is from www.photopills.com and shows the radiant of the Geminds. This app for photographers covers more than just meteor showers and is a highly recommended tool for astro-imagers.

On December 13 the radiant in Gemini rises just at sunset on that night. By midnight, Gemini is almost 60° high and even at sunrise still 30° high above the western horizon. There is no excuse - except cold weather - for a long observing session. Note also that Geminids can be seen for a night or two on either side of December 13.


December 14: Total solar eclipse

Not visible locally

A total eclipse of the Sun occurs today over the S. Pacific, south of S. America and the S. Atlantic. The partial phase is widely visible over much of the southern hemisphere. None of this eclipse is visible from the local area and the only landfall for the track of totality is across Chile and Argentina. More about the December 14 eclipse and others can be found at Fred Espenak's website www.MrEclipse.com. Sadly, due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions, many eclipse chasers are passing on travel to Chile or Argentina this December. However, links to live internet broadcasts from the area will be available.


December 21: Jupiter-Saturn Conjunction

The major event of the year involving these two planets is the conjunction on December 21 when Jupiter slips past Saturn with a spacing of only a tenth of a degree or 6 minutes of arc! Diagram above shows the 18:30 view of the two at minimum spacing. This should be a fine view in a medium power eyepiece. The diagram below is used with permission of Simulation Curriculum.


December 21/22: Ursid Meteors

This is not one of the well known showers and with only 10 per hour it is comparable to the two Taurid showers last month. There is also a FQ+ Moon brightening the sky until it sets at 01:30 or so. The only thing this shower has going for it is the very short peak at 04:00 on December 22, and the fact that the radiant is above the horizon the whole night long; it is actually circumpolar, a point near the bowl of the Little Dipper. I am sure the International Meteor Organization would like to have any reports of Ursid activity if you decide to observe this shower. The chart below is from www.theskylive.com.


December 25: Venus the "Christmas Star"

Venus continues tracking eastwards through Libra and just crosses into Scorpius on December 12 when the crescent Moon appears about 3° away, and again on December 13 about 10° away. On Christmas day, Venus is about 5 degrees from Antares, and by the end of December, Venus is closing on the Sun and getting into the dawn glare. It stays in the vicinity of the Sun for another 3 to 4 months finally emerging into the evening sky in late April.


A note on observing meteor showers

There are an average of five or six random shooting stars ("sporadics") on any given night, and these will add to any meteors originating in a meteor shower. The particles (called meteoroids) that produce the streaks of incandescence (called meteors) appear to come from a point in a specific constellation (the radiant), but only because the Earth is moving into the stream of debris trailing behind the comet or asteroid that shed the particles.

Annual meteor showers are produced by sand grain sized particles with few larger pieces. Do not expect meteorites, the larger solid pieces of debris to drop down into a field near you; no meteor shower has been known to produce meteorites normally. Most meteorites found on the Earth’s surface are from larger, random pieces of space debris that encounter Earth.

Meteor observing requires no special equipment. Just relax on a recliner and keep warm with a blanket to ward off the chill and dew at night. Meteors appear all over the sky; the longer trails tend to appear farther from the radiant. More info is provided here: Sky&Telescope Meteors.

Observers in a dark location on meteor watch would like conditions to be perfect - no moonlight, radiant high in the sky and cooperative weather. The RASC handbook gives the zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) and assumes ideal conditions, so this is generally a maximum possible. Still, ZHR are predictions and outbursts do happen. Note that counts usually go up after midnight. If there is a group observing, useful information can be obtained about showers by simple counts over 20 minutes or so, logging every meteor seen all over the sky. A group of 3 to 4 observers is required to observe the entire sky but useful counts can also come from single observers facing the radiant.

Reports should be sent to the International Meteor Organization (IMO) or the American Meteor Society (AMS). Include the location, sky conditions, transparency, elevation of radiant along with the time and numbers. Useful report forms for showers as well as for reporting notable individual meteors (fireballs or bolides) are found on these websites.

Photography is also encouraged! This site provides hints on how: Imaging meteors. Another one from Sky&Telescope is here: S&T meteors imaging.


Content on this page created by John Hlynialuk except where otherwise noted.