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Brightest Lights Rise Together

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 1, 2004; Page B08

Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gliding across the silver screen, the planets Venus and Jupiter dance cheek-to-cheek through our morning skies Thursday and Friday.

We get to see the brightest of the planets conjunct as they ascend the east-southeastern heavens beginning about 5 a.m. Of the two, Venus beams at negative fourth magnitude (very visible in metropolitan skies), while Jupiter is a respectable negative first magnitude.

By sunrise, both planets -- hanging out in the constellation Virgo -- are about 25 degrees above the eastern horizon. The sun washes them out at dawn. Observant sky gazers will notice that the two planets will move apart Saturday morning as Venus appears to sink toward the sun.

In mid-November, the cosmic divide between the radiant Venus and the gaseous Jupiter grows noticeable. In fact, Venus seeks a new dance partner and strides toward the ascending Mars at the end of November.

Jupiter begins rising about 4 a.m. at the end of November, and Venus rises nearly two hours later.

While the rovers Spirit and Opportunity continue to roam our neighboring red planet, Mars comes back into view before dawn. Dim as it is, Mars rises in the east-southeast and is a positive first magnitude object.

In the late-night heavens, Saturn rises in the east-northeast about midnight. You can find it in the constellation Gemini, underneath the stars Castor and Pollux. See the ringed planet -- at a very visible zero magnitude -- high in the southeast during the wee morning hours. By the end of November, Saturn rises after 10 p.m. in the east-northeast.

When compared with years past, the Leonid meteor shower -- which peaks Nov. 19 -- is predicted to be mundane, according to astronomers associated with NASA's Leonid Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign. Astronomers Jeremie Vaubaillon (Institut de Mécanique Céleste et de Calcul des Éphémérides), Esko Lyytinen (Finland), Markku Nissinen (Ursa Astronomical Association) and David Asher (Armagh Observatory) say that Earth will fly by two dusty comet trails, created by comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Meteors occur when Earth passes through the remnant trails left behind by comets.

Sky watchers who brave the brisk November night temperatures may see, at best, a handful of meteors each hour after midnight. Sky & Telescope Magazine suggests that the Leonid meteor shower will be comparatively weak and that the peak will occur Nov. 17. Observers should probably hedge their bets and scan the heavens between Nov. 17 and 19.

Down-to-Earth Events:

• Wednesday -- Curator John Grant on "Wandering the Surface of Mars: The Rovers Spirit and Opportunity." Meet at Milestones of Flight (Gallery 100) at the National Air and Space Museum, noon. Information, 202-357-2700; www.nasm.si.edu.

• Thursday -- Understand the red planet's watery past, as Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examines "Climate Change on Mars" at the auditorium, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1530 P St. NW. 6:45 p.m. Information, www.carnegieinstitution.org.

• Friday -- Astronomer Chul Gwon discusses the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy, or CARMA, at the University of Maryland observatory's open house in College Park. Telescope viewing after the lecture, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information, 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

• Saturday -- The National Capital Astronomers will hold its regular meeting at the University of Maryland's observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. Information, capitalastronomers.org.

• Nov. 8 -- Astronomer Sten Odenwald of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center discusses "Black Holes and the Void: Why You Should Be Afraid of the Dark," at the Library of Congress, Dining Room A (sixth floor). Odenwald's book, "Patterns in the Void," will be signed afterward. 11:30 a.m. Information, www.loc.gov.

• Nov. 13 -- See the real stars of late autumn. The National Capital Astronomers and the National Park Service host "Exploring the Sky" at Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 7 p.m. Information, 202-895-6070 or capitalastronomers.org.

• Nov. 13 -- Learn about astrolabes, devices used in ancient times to determine time according to star positions. At the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. Parking available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. Information, 301-650-1463; www.mc.cc.md.us/departments/planet.

• Nov. 20 -- What's the matter? Astronomer Barry McKernan will tell you in his talk, "The Search for Missing Matter." At the University of Maryland's observatory open house, College Park. Telescopic sky viewing after the talk, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information, 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at bfriedlander@earthlink.net.

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