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The Sky This Week, 2010 November 16 - 23

The Beaver Moon, Falling Leaves, and a Planet in Bloom

Jupiter, with Ganymede & Europa
2010 NOV 13, 13:59 UT

Imaged from Alexandria, VA.  Note dark SEB "outbreak" spot

The Moon brightens the overnight hours this week, illuminating the carpets of fallen leaves as she climbs northward into the rising winter constellations. Full Moon occurs on the 21st at 12:27 pm Eastern Standard Time. November’s Full Moon is variously known as the Frost Moon or the Snow Moon, but my favorite name for it is the Beaver Moon. Native Americans took note of how these busy rodents worked extra hard to shore up their dams and stock their lodges for the upcoming winter months, thus granting them a place in their sky lore. Luna starts the week off about 10 degrees northeast of bright Jupiter. On the evening of the 21st she passes between the two prominent star clusters of Taurus, the compact Pleiades and the V-shaped Hyades. By the end of the week she may be seen standing high over the familiar figure of Orion, the Hunter.

Mid-November is the time of year when the colorful leaves of autumn fall to the ground, leaving the trees bare to the swirling winds of late autumn storms. The nights now are approaching their longest spans of the year, and winter’s constellations are now gaining prominence in the evening sky. Despite the bright illumination of the Moon, by 10:00 pm the striding figure of Orion is climbing into the eastern sky, surrounded by the other bright stars of the Great Winter Circle. As the nights become longer and chillier, it only seems natural that nine of the 25 brightest stars in the sky become prominent as the midnight hour approaches. The colors of the fallen leaves will soon be swept up and put out into the street or covered with the first of winter’s snows, but hints of their red, orange, and yellow hues now beam down from far beyond the bare tree branches. The warm tones of these bright night beacons will keep us in good company as the year’s longest nights approach.

Bright Jupiter still holds sway over the early evening hours. The giant planet pops into view in the southeast shortly after sunset, and now crosses the meridian shortly before 8:00 pm. This means that Old Jove is in prime observing position from about 6:00 to 10:00 pm, a perfect target for the small to medium aperture telescope. Over the course of four hours the planet completes nearly half a rotation, and careful observers can see dramatic changes during this relatively brief time. Jupiter’s atmosphere is an unimaginable environment of noxious gases swirling at very high speed in discrete dark belts and bright zones that move at hundreds of miles per hour relative to each other. For most of this year one of the most prominent of the planet’s dark features, the South Equatorial Belt, has been invisible, hidden by a high-altitude deck of bright clouds. However, that may be changing now as amateur astronomers discovered a towering bright spot in the position of the vanished belt last week. Known as an "SEB Outbreak", this spot is rapidly expanding as deep material wells up through the obscuring clouds and spreads out with jovian jet streams. This may be the beginning of the resurgence of the South Equatorial Belt, so amateurs are keeping a very close eye on the planet right now. By the end of the year the belt may be storming back to prominence.

The morning sky now hosts two other bright planets, both of which have dense clouds in their atmospheres. However, unlike Jupiter’s detailed cloud systems, those of Saturn and Venus are much more subtle. Saturn’s dark belts and bright zones are shrouded in a methane haze, while the globe-girdling sulfuric acid clouds of Venus show virtually uniform detail over the entire planet. These bright clouds render both planets as easy-to-find objects in the eastern sky as morning twilight begins to gather. Look for them if you’re up before the Sun.

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