The Sky This Month – November 2013

Comet ISON (credit T. Hancock)

Comet ISON (credit T. Hancock)

With four comets in the sky, one total solar eclipse, a meteor shower, and Venus growing bright enough to cast a shadow, this month will be one for the history books.  In an earlier age, this concentrated celestial activity might have been taken for a bad omen of some kind.  But it’s not.  It’s just physics.  Physics, and a little good luck.

As for planets this month, Jupiter dominates the eastern sky after midnight along with the bright stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini.  The big planet brightens from magnitude -2.4 to -2.8 with a disc about 43″ wide.  Venus reaches its greatest elongation from the Sun and shines at a stunning magnitude -4.8.  The planet is low on the horizon for northern observers, but well up after sunset for southern-hemisphere observers all month.  Mercury makes its best apparition this year for northerners later in November as it passes near Saturn and a couple of binocular comets in the eastern pre-dawn sky.

As for comets…

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) continues to be the wildcard this month.  It begins November in Leo at magnitude 9.5 and is so far underperforming brightness expectations by a wide margin.  It then picks up speed and moves into Virgo and Libra as the month goes by, then reaches a very close perihelion on November 28.  If it survives, it could become spectacular in early December.

C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), discovered in September by Australian comet hunter Terry Lovejoy, is the surprise of the month.  It begins November at 8th magnitude in the constellation Cancer, then passes into Leo on November 11.  The comet outshines ISON at the beginning of November and may become bright enough to see without optical aid by month’s end.  The comet passes a bright star on November 23 (see below) which makes it easy to spot.  Note: This comet is not the same Comet Lovejoy that survived an encounter with the Sun and the end of 2011 and became very bright in the deep-southern sky.

Comet 2/P Encke, an old periodic comet also makes an appearance in the morning sky.  This short-period comet has made a pass round the Sun every 3.3 years for centuries.  But it never gets very bright.  This time it may reach 7th magnitude, viewable in binoculars near the planet Mercury towards month end.

And Comet C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) will also reach 8th magnitude this month and fly right by the bright star Arcturus at mid-month in the early-morning sky.

Here are all the details of what’s happening in the night sky this month…

* * * What to See in a Small Telescope This Month * * *

“What To See In A Small Telescope” takes you to nearly 100 deep-sky sights in the night sky from October through December. Includes maps and instructions to find every object, and tips on what to look for.  Nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, and more.  Click here to learn more…

* * * * * * * * * *

 1 November.  Venus reaches greatest elongation 47º east of the Sun.  The planet is about as far south as it ever gets, so it will lie low on the horizon in the northern hemisphere in the west-southwestern sky after sunset.  Southern-hemisphere observers will see the brilliant planet much higher in the sky.  The planet will reach magnitude -4.8 this month, nearly bright enough to cast a shadow.  In a telescope, the planet is 50% illuminated today, then about 30% illuminated by month’s end as it gets closer to Earth.

1 Nov.  Mercury passes through inferior conjunction and is lost in the Sun’s glare.  But not for long.  The quick little planet moves into the morning sky as the month moves on.  By November 20, the planet brightens to magnitude -0.7 about 10º above the horizon at dawn.  This is the best showing of Mercury in the morning sky this year for northern observers.

 3 Nov.  Daylight savings ends for most of North America at 2 a.m.   Set your clocks back an hour and get some extra sleep.

3 Nov.  New Moon,  12:50 UT

3 Nov.  The Moon eclipses the Sun for observers across the northern Atlantic and the equatorial regions of Africa.  This is a rare “hybrid” eclipse that begins as an annular eclipse where the Moon is too small to completely cover the Sun, then continues as a total eclipse as the Moon moves a little closer to Earth.  Like all solar eclipses, the path of totality is long but narrow, so you need to be exactly in the right location to see totality.   But observers all over eastern North America will see a partial eclipse to some degree as the Sun rises on the morning of November 3.  The map below shows where this eclipse can be seen as well as the degree (or magnitude) of totality.  Remember to use a safe solar filter if you attempt to observe the eclipse at any other time than complete totality.  More about solar filters here…

The path of the solar eclipse of November 3, 2013.  Click to enlarge.  Image credit: www.eclipse-maps.com

The path of the solar eclipse of November 3, 2013. Image credit: www.eclipse-maps.com. Click to enlarge.

6 Nov.   Look for Venus close to a waxing crescent Moon after sunset in the west-southwestern sky.

6 Nov.  Saturn is in conjunction with the Sun and cannot be observed.

10 Nov.  First-Quarter Moon,  05:57 UT

17 Nov.  Full Moon,  15:16 UT

17 Nov.  C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) passes within a degree of the brilliant star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes.  The comet may be visible in 50 mm binoculars and will certainly lie within the reach of a 3″ or 4″ telescope.

Comet C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) passes the bright star Arcturus in the eastern sky on November 17, 2013.  Look for Arcturus in the eastern sky before sunrise.

Comet C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) passes the bright star Arcturus in the eastern sky on November 17, 2013. Look for Arcturus in the eastern sky before sunrise.

17 Nov.  The Leonids meteor shower peaks early this morning.  This has been a spectacular meteor shower in the past, but it seems to have grown quiet in recent years.  You can expect to see 5-10 bright meteors an hour, each of which traces their path back to the radiant in the Sickle of Leo.  The full Moon this year will not help with visibility.

17 Nov.  Also today, Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) passes the bright star Spica in the eastern early-morning sky.

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) passes near the bright star Spica on November 17, 2013.  Comet LINEAR and Encke are nearby.

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) passes near the bright star Spica on November 17, 2013. Comet LINEAR and Encke are nearby.

20 Nov.  Comet 2/P Encke lies just 2º from bright Mercury in the pre-dawn sky

Mercury, Saturn, and Comet 2/P Encke on November 20, 2013.  Encke will reach magnitude 7.0 and will be visible in binoculars.

Mercury, Saturn, and Comet 2/P Encke on November 20, 2013. Encke will reach magnitude 7.0 and will be visible in binoculars.

22 Nov.  Comet ISON will come within 6º of Mercury in the early-morning sky as it moves quickly towards the Sun.

23 Nov.  Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) comes within 5° of the bright star Cor Caroli in the constellation Canes Venatici just under the handle of the Big Dipper in the early morning sky in the northern hemisphere.

Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) passes the star Cor Caroli under the handle of the Big Dipper on Nov. 23, 2013.

Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) passes the star Cor Caroli under the handle of the Big Dipper on Nov. 23, 2013.

25 Nov.  Speedy Mercury will come within 1º of Saturn in the eastern sky before dawn.  Comet ISON will be visible directly below them close to the horizon in binoculars, or possibly without optical aid about 30-60 minutes before sunrise.

25 Nov.  Last-Quarter Moon,  19:28  UT

28 Nov.  Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) reaches perihelion just 1,100,000 km above the visible surface of the Sun.  If it survives this close encounter, it will swing around the Sun and become a bright naked-eye comet in the eastern sky before sunrise in early December.