The planet Saturn does its best to thwart the attention being paid to that red object in the east, Mars, which hasn't been this bright in two years. Saturn, however, has twisted this cosmic soap opera. The ringed planet has gained unexpected attention because of a hefty storm visible through homemade telescopes.
Look for Saturn moderately high in the west, just after sundown. In fact, it follows the sun into the west-southwestern horizon from a safe vantage point just above Sagittarius. By the end of the month, it won't be up very long.
The amount of time available to view Saturn is critical, since the newly discovered large white spot rotates with the rest of planet, meaning that on some nights it will be on the other side of Saturn.
The Wilber Spot, named after its discoverer, Stuart Wilber, who sighted it on Sept. 24, from his home in Las Cruces, N.M., is estimated to have a diameter of 50,000 miles, and astronomers are reporting that it has spawned new spots within the older one. It's been almost 60 years since astronomers have reported sighting a storm this large on Saturn. Wilber, a college math teacher, spotted the storm using his homemade 10-inch telescope. "I was pretty excited," he says. "I knew I was seeing an event."
Mars, on the other hand, should be the star of this cosmic show. After all, we in the Northern Hemisphere won't see that planet this well for another 11 years. Mars has center stage until the middle of December and is a splendid -2 magnitude (very bright) in the heavens.
To the right of Mars is a fairly bright object; that's the star Aldebaran in the Taurus constellation.
Mars comes this close to Earth about every two years, give or take a month. While it takes us 365 days to round the sun, Mars uses 687 days. It would seem that the Earth and Mars would meet in the same spot, but this is not the case: They are not lined up exactly on the same orbital plane and the celestial mechanics have implanted a stutter-step that ensures they meet at different times. The next such meeting will be in 2001.
Meanwhile, you can find Mars even from the most light-polluted urban areas. It comes its closest to the Earth on Nov. 20, when it will be about 47 million miles away.
The planet reaches its brightest on Nov. 27, when it will be on the meridian at midnight. The sun gets a better angle on the red planet then, because from our point of view, Mars will be opposite the sun.
Jupiter hosts its own late-night show this month. It will rise in the east about an hour before midnight, and will travel the southern sky. By dawn, it still will be high in the southern sky.
Down to Earth Events: Saturday -- Get more than your money's worth at a free, guided tour of the universe. The Goddard Astronomy Club escorts members and guests through lovely nebulae and enchanting planets from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Goddard Visitor Center, Greenbelt.
Nov. 14 -- Armed with a backyard-variety telescope and modest electronics, Thomas R. Willmitch addresses a cornerstone in modern astronomy, "Photoelectric Photometry and the Small Observatory." 7:30 p.m. Arlington Planetarium, adjacent to Washington-Lee High School. Admission, $2 for adults; $1 for children. Reservations at 703-358-6070.
Nov. 17 -- Ellen V. Sprouls of the Einstein Planetarium commemorates American Indian Heritage Month with a presentation explaining Native American sky lore. The program, "They Dwell in the Sky," created for young people, starts at 9:30 a.m. Einstein Planetarium. Free.
Nov. 21 -- Catch the highlights of this year's telescope meet sponsored by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Club president Blaine Korcel will recap what happened in the universe that weekend at the Arlington Planetarium. 7:30 p.m. Free.
Nov. 25 -- Jean Swank, a project scientist at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, explains how X-rays from as far away as 200,000 light years get here and what it means. 1 p.m. Goddard Visitor Center. Free.