Spread your grandmother's quilt on a grassy knoll, top off that thermos filled with hot chocolate with a few marshmallows and look up on the night of Nov. 17-18 for a view of a probably strong Leonid meteor shower.
"This year there's a good chance of having a pretty good show," says Geoff Chester, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory. In normal years, the Leonid meteors provide us with a splash of a dozen or so shooting stars an hour. Last year, the shower was strong, with as many as a few hundred meteors an hour reported near here during the shower's peak. No one knows for sure how many we'll see until the event, which peaks at about 9 that night. Chester says the bright, gibbous moon will set at about 1:15 a.m. Nov. 18, perhaps giving way to the sighting of more meteors, which are the dusty remains of comets gone by. On its annual journey around the sun, our little blue planet runs into these dusty trails. This rubble strikes the Earth's atmosphere, burns up and appears as streaky flashes of light. The Leonid meteors' dust belongs to Comet Tempel Tuttle, and the resulting meteors appear to originate from the regal constellation Leo, which rises here just before midnight.
Magnificent Jupiter begins its planetary ascent at sundown now, hanging out in the constellation Pisces, rising from the east-northeast. As of late, Saturn follows Jupiter closely. Our gaseous king crosses the meridian just after 11 p.m. now and its ringed partner crosses it a little after midnight in the early days of November. By the middle of the month, Jupiter will already be a brilliant sight in the east at sundown. By the end of the month, it can be found high in the east-southeast at dusk, reigning over the other planets.
Venus begins to rise now just before 3 a.m. in the eastern sky, and has become an easy target to spot. As a brilliant negative fourth-magnitude object, Earth's inner neighbor can be seen near the hindquarters of Leo the Lion.
With a clear view of the eastern horizon, the ever-fleet planet Mercury climbs higher into the morning sky beginning in mid-November. By Thanksgiving's long weekend, Mercury will be an effortless target to spot in the southeast, and it remains high through the end of the month.
* Nov. 5--Astronomer Doug Hamilton talks about "Hubble Vision" at the University of Maryland astronomy department's open house. After the lecture, look at the heavens through the telescope at the university's observatory on Metzerott Road across from the System Administration building. 8 p.m. 301-405-3001. Web site: www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
* Nov. 6--NASA's John Varnish will discuss the Next Generation Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope's successor, at the National Capital Astronomers' meeting. Lipsett Amphitheater in the Clinical Center (Building 10) of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. 7:30 p.m.
* Nov. 13--In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, lecturer Patty Seaton provides a poetic, mythical journey through Anasazi ruins of Chaco Canyon, N.M. Seaton will explain how that society used buildings and sophisticated astronomy skills to identify and celebrate astronomical events. At the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum, 6 p.m. 202-357-2700.
* Nov. 13--Examining cosmic wonders such as Jupiter and Saturn can be a gas. Join the National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers as they explore the night sky at the field across from the Rock Creek Nature Center at Military and Glover roads NW. 7 p.m. 202-426-6829. Web: www.nps.gov/rocr/planetarium.
* Nov. 14--Learn how to buy a telescope at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club meeting, Lecture Hall No. 1 on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax. 6 p.m. Free Sunday parking in lots F and G.
* Nov. 20--Astronomer Lucy McFadden discusses "NASA's Near Earth Rendezvous Mission: Getting 'NEARer' to Asteroid 433 Eros," at the University of Maryland astronomy department's open house. Sky-gazing follows. 8 p.m. 301-405-3001.
* Nov. 27--Get a firsthand view of X-ray emissions of stars, neutron stars and black holes that have never been seen before. Fred Seward of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory explains how a sensitive space telescope studies some very hot objects. At the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum, 6 p.m. 202-357-2700.