November’s heavens offer a cornucopia of cosmic abundance: bright planets, an eclipse, a comet . . . and a night of extra sleep, sort of.
Next Sunday, we turn back our clocks an hour, returning to Eastern Standard Time, officially at 2 a.m. Nov. 3. We get an extra hour to sleep. But here is nature’s kicker: If you want to catch the last remnants of a partial solar eclipse, you’ll have to wake up before sunrise.
Hours later, exactly at sunrise and barring any clouds, we awaken to a partial solar eclipse starting at 6:38 a.m., says Geoff Chester, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory here. The moon takes a significant chunk from the sun at that time, but the eclipse ends for Washington at 7:10 a.m.
(Next Sunday’s eclipse is an annular/total eclipse – a hybrid eclipse. Some of the world sees annularity, where the moon aligns with the sun, but the lunar disk doesn’t completely hide the sun. Parts of the world get a short totality. The centerline runs from the Atlantic Ocean to southern Africa.)
Warning: Do not look directly at the sun during a partial eclipse and do not look at the sun through unprotected binoculars or a telescope, or you could severely damage your eyes. Instead, go old school: Put a pinhole in cardboard and project the sun’s image on a piece of paper.
For information, see eclipse expert Fred Espenak’s Web site: www.mreclipse.com/MrEclipse.html.
Find Venus – amazing and gorgeous – high in the west-southwestern sky at dusk now. The planet looks like a beaming, gigantic LED flashlight aimed directly at you. The planet appears brighter at -4.8 magnitude (extraordinarily bright) by month’s end. The young moon casually visits Venus on Nov. 6.
Jupiter rises in the late evening now and midevening after the time change, in the east-northeast at a bright -2.4 magnitude. The big, gaseous planet hangs high as it crosses to the south in the hours before dawn.
The middle of November gives sky-gazers an excellent chance to see Mercury, a zero magnitude object. From about Nov. 11 to Thanksgiving week, find the fleet planet in the south-southeast, low in the sky. Saturn (a zero magnitude object) returns from the sun’s glare. While you’re packing the minivan for Grandma’s house, Mercury appears to pass Saturn within a degree on the morning of Nov. 26.
Our red neighbor, Mars, loiters in the eastern morning heavens. By midmonth, the first magnitude Mars rises (east-northeast) around 1:30 a.m., standard time. The moon accompanies the Red Planet on the morning of Nov. 27.
As we loosen our belts from a fattening Thanksgiving dinner, Comet ISON will reach perihelion – it’s closest fly-by of the sun — Nov. 28. Generally, astronomers expect the comet to reach naked-eye visibility just days before perihelion. If the comet gets that bright, it will look like a faint, fuzzy cotton ball. Late in November, you should be able find it before sunrise in the southeast, in the neighborhood of Mercury and Saturn.
Down to Earth events:
● Saturday — “The History of Water on Mars and What it Means for Life,” a lecture by geologist Bob Craddock, at the Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 5:15 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.
● Saturday — The Pleiades and winter constellations emerge at the last “Exploring the Sky” this season, with the National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers. At Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 7 p.m. capitalastronomers.org.
●Nov. 5 — “Titanic Collisions!” a talk by astronomer Doug Hamilton, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Weather permitting, sky viewing through telescopes after the talk. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
●Nov. 9 — Kent Wood of the Naval Research Laboratory discusses “An All-Sky Discovery Machine: A Gamma Ray Telescope and an Optical Survey,” at the National Capital Astronomers meeting, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. capitalastronomers.org.
●Nov. 10 — Daniel Reichart, astronomy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discusses Skynet — a network of robotic telescopes operated by students, faculty and staff at UNC. Reichart’s talk will be at the regular meeting of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, in the meeting room at the base of the observatory in Research Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.
●Nov. 16 — Learn about black bubbles, black holes and gravity at the Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park, 7 p.m. www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet.
●Nov. 18 — “Rivers and Lakes on Mars,” a lecture by geologist Ross Irwin at the Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 5:15 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.
●Nov. 20 — “Kepler and the Search for Other Earths,” a lecture by astronomer Drake Deming, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Enjoy the night heavens through telescopes afterward, weather permitting. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.