Night Sky Guide: October to December 2013
HIGHLIGHTSComet ISON makes its long-awaited appearance
Venus reaches peak brilliancy
Jupiter arrives for late-night viewing
Meteor Showers light up every month
A Hybrid Solar Eclipse follows a Penumbral Lunar Eclipse
The Solstice brings winter to the Northern Hemisphere
Chances to spy Saturn, Mercury, and Uranus
Author: Kelly Whitt
The time to learn whether Comet ISON will be one of the most impressive comets of our lifetimes or just a fairly decent observing object is almost here. Comets are notoriously unpredictable, and ISON could start out as a “dud” and have an outburst of activity as it nears the Sun, or it could begin bright only to later break up into nothingness under solar pressure.
A great date to start searching for Comet ISON is in the dark hours before dawn on October 14. Comet ISON is a morning object until the last days of November, so you’ll have to make an effort before then to track it down.
On October 14, Comet ISON is near Regulus and Mars in Leo in the east-southeast. Reddish Mars is about 1 degree above and a little to the left of Regulus, and Comet ISON will be about 1 degree above and a little to the left of Mars. Use binoculars or a telescope to hunt for ISON. The trio will remain close together the next morning, October 15, and then Mars and ISON sink together, away from Regulus, until about October 20 when ISON starts to speed away from the Red Planet.
Will Comet ISON be as good as March’s Comet Panstarrs (above)?
Credit: John Chumack
On November mornings, look for Comet ISON in the southeast before sunrise in the constellation Virgo. ISON will head toward Virgo’s brightest star, Spica, passing closest to it on the mornings of November 17 and 18. At the end of the week, look for ISON just to the right of Mercury and Saturn. A tail, if visible, will extend back up toward Spica.
Comet ISON’s closest approach to the Sun occurs on November 28, when it slingshots around the Sun at a distance of 1,100,000 km and then heads up into northern skies. The comet may then be visible after sunset on the last days of November, possibly reaching the hoped-for brilliancy that has made it so well known.
ISON will remain in northern skies for quite a while, climbing a little above the horizon in the west while sliding to the northwest. On December 26, Comet ISON will be 64.7 million kilometers from Earth. The comet is heading toward the North Star, Polaris, which it will reach in January. As it climbs into north circumpolar regions and is visible all night, will it remain a good viewing target? Only time will tell.
October nights begin with bright Venus in the southwest after sunset. The Sun itself has passed the equinox and is moving farther south in northern hemisphere skies. Sunsets arrive sooner and sunrises appear later, leaving the stars longer hours in which to shine.
While Saturn and Mercury are still technically in the sky to Venus’s right at the beginning of the month, you’ll have a hard time spotting them. The two planets are setting as the sky gets dark enough to see them.
Try on October 6 when a young Moon is between the planets, with Saturn above and Mercury below. Venus is to the far left of this grouping. On October 7, the crescent Moon is about halfway between Venus (to the left) and Mercury and Saturn (to the Moon’s right). On October 8, the Moon is above Venus and the planets Mercury and Saturn get within five degrees of each other but then slide apart as they succumb to the Sun’s glow.
While all this activity is going on in the southwest, turn and face the opposite direction, the northeast, where the sky is already darker. A sparkling star that seems to flash primary colours is rising. That star, Capella, is a double star, although not separable for casual observers. Like Venus in the southwest, Capella is also often mistaken for a UFO. Capella, known as the Goat Star, is the sixth brightest star in the sky, lies 45 light-years away, and is 11 times the size of our Sun. Its constellation is Auriga, the Charioteer.
Uranus is at opposition in October, rising opposite the setting Sun on the 3rd and setting when the Sun rises the next morning. At magnitude 5.7, Uranus really needs a bright locator object close by to find it, and unfortunately as it floats in Pisces there is nothing notable nearby.
The Full Hunter’s Moon occurs on October 18 at 23:38 GMT. On this date we’ll have a penumbral lunar eclipse, which will bring a faint shadow over the Moon but not graphic darkness as would be the case with partial or total lunar eclipses. North Americans will see the eclipse at moonrise, Europe and Africa can view the eclipse in its entirety, and Asia will see the eclipse during moonset. Only in Alaska, Hawaii, Australia, and the far eastern areas of Asia, including Japan, is no eclipse visible.
The Orionid Meteor Shower peaks on October 20/21, just a couple days after Full Moon, which will wash out many of the meteors. With a possibility of 25 meteors an hour, this shower originates from a pass of Halley’s Comet.
As October draws to a close and November begins, notice the winter constellations such as Taurus and Orion rising in the east. Just behind them is Gemini, where Jupiter is currently residing. The giant planet stays in late evening skies for much of fall. Notice Jupiter pairing with the Moon on November 21. It meets up with the Moon again on December 18.
An annular eclipse is not safe to view with the eyes alone.
Credit: Ibon San Martin
On November 3, a hybrid solar eclipse occurs. The east coast of North America will see a partial solar eclipse at sunrise. Maximum eclipse occurs over the Atlantic Ocean but Gabon will see a total eclipse before it shifts to an annular eclipse (unsafe to view with the eyes alone) as it heads toward Somalia. Other areas that will see a partial eclipse include northern Brazil, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Madagascar.
Watch for the Moon to pair with Venus on November 6. Both objects will lie in front of the Milky Way.
Can you spot the Andromeda Galaxy above this image of the fall Milky Way?
Credit: John Chumack
Some light meteor showers in November give viewers a chance to "catch a falling star" all month. The South Taurid Meteor Shower peaks on November 4/5, the North Taurid Meteor Shower peaks on November 11/12, and the Leonid Meteor Shower peaks November 17. November’s Full Moon is on November 17 at 15:17 GMT, interfering with the Leonids.
December sees Venus reach its peak brilliancy, magnitude -4.9, on the 6th. Venus will be 26% illuminated with a 41 arcsecond disk. The evening before you can spot the Moon to the upper right of Venus. The Moon pairs with the Pleiades on December 14 and is found near the head of the bull in Taurus on December 15. The Full Moon occurs on December 17 at 9:29 GMT.
Two meteor showers light up December, with the Geminids on December 13/14. The Geminids will be lessened by the Moon that reaches full a few days later, knocking down the maximum hourly rate that is 80 under better conditions. The second meteor shower is the Ursid meteors, which peak December 21/22 and can display up to 9 meteors an hour.
The solstice brings winter to the Northern Hemisphere (and roughly 90% of the world’s population) on December 21 at 17:11 GMT. The Sun is aligned over the Tropic of Capricorn on that date and seems to stand still in the sky before it makes its slow journey back toward the north.
If you're confused by any of the astronomy terminology used on this page take a look at our: explanation of astronomy basics. Also, do visit our section on CCD Imaging to see what other amateur enthusiasts have managed to capture with their equipment. If there are any amateur astrophotographers out there who would like to exhibit their images on Astronomy Today do contact us.