Featuring comets, conjunctions and constellations, November's night sky offers a variety show of cosmic events.
The curtain rises with a duet, as the current full moon is accompanied by Jupiter. Jupiter sweeps across the south and burns at -2.9 magnitude, which means it's a very bright night object. Tomorrow night it will be located to the right of the moon. Since this is the first full lunar disk after last month's Harvest Moon, the nickname for tonight's spectacle is the Hunter's Moon. The Hunter and the Harvest moons rise soon after sunset, traditionally providing evening light for hungry stalkers.
Venus has returned as a glittering spotlight on the night sky stage. If gazers think Jupiter is bright, Venus is even more so, shining at a -3.9 magnitude. Look to the southwest early in the evening, but low on the horizon, to find our terrestrial neighbor.
Making a rendezvous, Saturn and Venus share a dance through the western sky on the evening of Nov. 20. Called a planetary "conjunction" by astronomers, this majestic meeting can be seen slightly above the horizon.
Like dancing girls, the Leonids meteor showers make brief appearances when they peak Nov. 17. Since the moon won't be bright, the sky is favorable to catch these shooting stars. Like any other meteor shower, get away from city lights and look up for a while. You're bound to catch a few.
The constellation Orion grows more confident from behind the curtain of the eastern horizon. Climbing high, this group of stars is shaped like a sideways H and is named for mythical hunter Orion. Find his belt, trace it to the lower left and find the bright star Sirius close behind.
Then, November's slightly aloof attraction: Comet Bradfield. Bradfield is almost due west, but it's getting higher in the sky, according to Geoff Chester of Einstein Planetarium. Provided there are clear, dark skies (after the moon wanes,) Bradfield should be at its best viewing. Binoculars or a small telescope would be handy, since the comet is a dim +5 magnitude.
Variety shows would be incomplete without comic relief. This month's Stargazing Notes, written by Gail Cleere of the Naval Observatory, features a planet everyone can view easily -- Earth. Cleere's instructions: "Look down."
Saturday -- LeRoy Doggett, an astronomer at the Naval Observatory, discusses the mechanics of the lunar cycle, which has reached its peak of an 18.6-year cycle. His lecture, "1987 -- The Year the Moon Stood Still," explains the illusion that the moon seems to be staying put. Einstein Planetarium, Air & Space Museum, 9:30 a.m. Admission is free.
The Air & Space Museum has also brought a few astronomers from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., to answer questions on mysteries of the cosmos:
Tuesday, Nov. 10 -- Costas Papliolios asks nature's purpose of exploding stars in his lecture, "Supernovas: Grand Finales or New Beginnings?" The brightest supernova to be seen in 400 years burst earlier this year and Papliolios, a physicist from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), may have found a companion bright object to the supernova. Einstein Planetarium, 8 p.m. Free.
Tuesday, Nov. 17 -- While supernovas are star deaths, how did these cosmic objects get to be stars anyway? Lee Hartman, an SAO physicist, explains the other side of a star's life in his lecture, "How Are Stars Born?" Einstein Planetarium, 8 p.m. Free.