The Mental Floss Guide to the November Night Sky

November is a great month for skywatching with two dazzling meteor showers, the rare view of a tiny planet, and an eerie celestial meeting of two bright worlds. None require telescopes or sophisticated knowledge of the sky above. If you have eyes, live on Earth, and want a good dose of the cosmos, you're in for a treat. Here are a few highlights that skywatchers should be on the lookout for.

NOVEMBER 4: FIREBALL SEASON BEGINS

The Taurid meteor shower dominates the early part of November, with the northern and southern hemispheres each getting their own shows. The South Taurids peak after midnight on November 4. The North Taurids peak at the same time, but on different days: the 10th going into the 11th. The source of the Taurids is the debris field of the comet Encke. The meteor stream is massive and spread out, with the gravitational influence of Jupiter, most notably, causing a split and thus the dual peaks.

Meteors, though appearing to be massive chunks of rock coursing toward Earth, are generally dust- or sand-sized particles that burn brightly as they slam into the atmosphere. The Taurids tend to be a bit larger than most, frequently producing what are called "fireballs" (really bright meteors). While you won't see many Taurid meteors per hour (around seven or so at best), what the shower lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. If you have low levels of light pollution and your eyes are adjusted to darkness, you should be in for quite a show.

NOVEMBER 13: THE JV TEAM DEBUTS

On November 13, Venus and Jupiter will appear alarmingly close in the pre-dawn sky, practically as a single object, separated by a mere 0.3 degrees. But don't worry, the planets aren't colliding. Rather, it's a trick of perspective. Venus is about the size of Earth (it is, in many ways, our evil twin), and is one planet closer to the Sun than Earth in its orbit. It is a stunning, unblinking dot in the sky. Jupiter, meanwhile, is about five times farther from the Sun than is the Earth, but what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in size: you could fit about 1300 Earths inside of it. What makes their conjunction so fun is that you don't have to know much about space or astronomy to see the magic of orbital mechanics. How to see it: One hour before sunrise, look east. The two bright, eerily adjacent worlds will appear on the horizon. As the sun rises over the next hour, it will wash them out, so have coffee with you and enjoy the moment.

NOVEMBER 17: THE BEST METEOR SHOWER OF THE YEAR PEAKS

After midnight on November 17, the Leonids meteor shower will peak, and here is why you need to see it. 1. It coincides with a new moon, which means there will be no moonlight to wash out the sky. 2. This shower has a history of delivering the goods, some years bringing as many as 1000 meteors per minute. Note: This is not one of those years! Expect between 10 and 20 per hour, which still isn't bad when the sky is inky black, a celestial canvas waiting for brushes of light. (Incidentally, while the Taurid meteors collide with Earth's atmosphere at a snail's pace—a mere 65,000 miles per hour—the Leonids do not play around. They're smashing into us at a blistering 160,000 miles per hour.) 3. The 17th is a Friday and you can sleep late the next morning, so what are you going to do: Binge-watch somebody else's adventure on Netflix, or go live your own?

NOVEMBER 24: MERCURY SHINES AT ITS BIGGEST AND BRIGHTEST

Mercury will reach greatest eastern elongation, meaning it will be as far from the Sun as it can get for the rest of the year, relative to the Earth, and will thus be as big and bright as it's going to get in the sky. If you want to see the elusive little planet, this is your big chance. Just before sunset, look west. You will most easily see Saturn not too far above the horizon. As the minutes move forward and the sky slowly darkens, you'll notice another bright spot below Saturn. That's Mercury. Enjoy it while you can, because you'll only have about 30 minutes from its first appearance before it sinks below the horizon and thus falls out of view.

If bad weather ruins any of your November viewings, do not fret. Next month we've got meteor showers, pagan rituals, and supermoons to help bid 2017 adieu.

First-Ever Map of Titan Reveals That Saturn’s Moon Is a Lot Like Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

If there's any life in this solar system outside Earth, we likely won't find it on Mars or even on another planet. Saturn's moon Titan is the place in our celestial neighborhood that's most similar to our own home, and it's where scientists think we have one of the best chances of discovering life. Now, as Nature reports, newly visualized data shows just how much Titan has in common with Earth.

Between 2004 and 2017, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed more than 100 fly-bys of Saturn's moon. Titan is unique in that it's the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense, weather-forming atmosphere. This has made it hard to study from space, but by flying close to the surface, Cassini was able to capture the landscape in an unprecedented level of detail.

Map of Titan.
The first global geologic map of Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's new map of Titan, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveals a varied world of mountains, valleys, plains, and sandy dunes that starkly contrast with the desolate wastelands we've seen on neighboring planets. It's also home to seas and lakes, making it the only place in the solar system other than Earth with known bodies of liquid. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

Even with its Earth-like geology and atmosphere, chances of finding life on Titan are still slim: Temperatures on the surface average around -300°F. If life does exist there, it's likely limited to microbes in the moon's craters and icy volcanoes.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. Until then, scientists have plenty of data recorded by Cassini to teach them more about how the moon formed and continues to change.

[h/t Nature]

A Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst Could Be Visible for Less Than an Hour on Thursday

joegolby/iStock via Getty Images
joegolby/iStock via Getty Images

Your chances of seeing a unicorn this week are slim, but if you look up on Thursday night, you may see something that's almost as extraordinary. As Sky & Telescope reports, the upcoming Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could produce a meteor outburst, which means there could be multiple shooting stars per second streaming from the unicorn constellation.

What is a unicorn meteor shower?

There's nothing particularly magical about the Alpha Monocerotids. They appear to originate near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, the Greek name for unicorn.

The shower is known for occasionally packing a dense flurry of activity into a brief viewing window. The meteors appear between November 15 through the 25th of each year, and peak around the 22nd. Several times a century, the shower treats sky gazers to an "outburst" of shooting stars that lasts less than an hour.

Such an outburst is predicted for 2019. According to astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, the Earth is on track to pass through a thick portion of the tail of the unknown comet that provides debris for the shower. The conditions are almost the same as they were in 1995, when the Alpha Monocerotids lit up the sky at a rate of 400 meteors per hour, which is approaching meteor storm levels. For that reason, the scientists are expecting shooting stars to appear in the same numbers this time around.

How to see the meteor outburst

Timing is crucial if you want to catch the Alpha Monocerotids, even more than with regular meteor showers. The outburst is expected to start at 11:15 p.m. EST and last just 15 to 40 minutes. Luckily, the sun will be fully set by then and the crescent moon won't rise until after 2 a.m, creating optimal viewing conditions for the eastern half of the country. The shooting stars are fast—traveling at 40 miles per second—and they come at random. Don't be surprised to wait a minute between meteors during some parts of the outburst and less than a second at others.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER