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The Sky This Week, 2011 November 1 - 8

Time to "fall back" and enjoy the Moon and Jupiter.

 Sunrise, U.S. Naval Observatory
2011 October 31

The Moon brightens the evening sky this week, wending her way through the sparse starfields of the autumnal constellations. First Quarter occurs on November 2nd at 12:38 pm Eastern Daylight Time. Luna encounters no bright objects until the evenings of the 8th and 9th, when she passes the bright glow of Jupiter.

The freak snowstorm that recently affected much of the eastern U.S. is a reminder that the transition from October to November was often viewed by northern European cultures as the beginning of winter. While most of us have either celebrated Halloween or will celebrate All Saints Day, All Souls Day, or Dia de los Muertos, another ritual will be observed that also reminds us of the dark nights of winter to come. This weekend marks the second clock-change for the year when we "fall back" one hour to Standard Time. This year we officially set the clocks back at 2:00 am on Sunday morning, November 6th. Unofficially most of us set them back upon retiring on Saturday evening, thus ensuring that we get back the hour of sleep we lost back in March when we set the clocks forward. For most of us this means we won’t be waking up in the dark anymore, but our evening commutes will now be in deepening twilight. If you’re a skywatcher who likes to get a good bit of observing in before bedtime you’ve now got a bit over five months of early evenings to look forward to. Fortunately, for the next few months, the evening sky is where most all of the action is going to be.

The evening show starts as soon as the Sun goes down in the southwestern twilight sky. Here you’ll find the bright sparkle of Venus about five degrees above the horizon about half an hour after sunset. If you have binoculars and a clear horizon look for the glow of Mercury about two degrees below Venus. The two objects will appear in the same positions relative to each other for the rest of the week, and both will inch a little higher on each subsequent evening. They will maintain this formation for another week before Mercury begins a precipitous plunge toward the Sun. This will be one of the better chances to catch the fleet planet for those of you who’ve never seen him before.

Jupiter is now unquestionably the lord of the night. Just past opposition, the giant planet stays prominent in the sky all night long, beckoning anyone with any kind of optical aide to give him the once-over. If you have a small telescope, it’s a great week to compare the view of Old Jove, which sports the largest apparent disc of all the planets, to the surface of our humble Moon, which is some 40 times smaller (albeit almost 1500 times closer!) Jupiter’s disc would fit comfortably inside a modest-sized lunar crater, but careful examination of that disc will reveal a wealth of detail to the patient observer. A three-inch telescope will show several of the planet’s dark cloud belts, and a six-inch will begin to reveal fine structure in those clouds. The larger instrument will also resolve the discs of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, the smallest of which, Europa, is roughly the size of our natural satellite.

The last few mornings of daylight time give those of us who are not necessarily "morning people" a chance to take in the pre-dawn sky at a decent hour. The star of this hour is the red planet Mars, which has been moving briskly eastward toward the bright star Regulus in Leo. This week Mars continues to close the gap, and by the week’s end he’s just over a degree north of the star. Mars will skim past the star next week, then gradually slow down as he heads toward opposition in eastern Leo next March.

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