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The Sky This Week, 2018 November 13 - 20

Meteors and the Moon
The Moon, imaged 2017 November 1 from Alexandria, Virginia./></a></td>
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The Moon, imaged 2017 November 1 from Alexandria, Virginia
with an Explore Scientific AR-102 102mm (4-inch) f/6.6 refractor telescope and a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR.
The Apollo 12 landing site on Oceanus Procellarum is indicated.

The Moon waxes in the evening sky this week, reaching her First Quarter phase on the 15th at 9:54 am Eastern Standard Time.  Luna may be found just 3 degrees southeast of Mars on the evening of the 15th.  She spends the rest of the week drifting through the dim autumnal constellations of Aquarius, Cetus, and Pisces.

The Moon washes out the annual Leonid meteor shower, which peaks during the overnight hours of the 17th-18th.  This shower is one of the most enigmatic of the annual meteor displays.  Its parent comet, 55/P Tempel-Tuttle, was discovered by astronomer Horace P. Tuttle on January 5, 1866 from the old U.S. Naval Observatory site in Washington’s Foggy Bottom district.  With a period of just over 33 years, the comet has spawned intense displays of meteors in the years that it returns to the inner solar system.  In 1833 thousands were seen across North America, where hourly rates exceeded 10,000, causing widespread consternation to those who witnessed the event.  A similar display occurred in 1866, and shortly afterward it was determined that the comet was the source of the meteoroids.  Expectations ran high for 1899, but a storm of meteors failed to appear, and a similar “bust” occurred in 1932 and 1933.  It was suspected that the meteor stream had become depleted, but in 1966 a major outburst occurred, and observers in California were reporting dozens of meteors radiating from the “sickle” asterism of Leo every second!  I glimpsed a few dozen myself through broken clouds from my home in Connecticut, where the hourly rate was estimated to be “only” 300-400.  This was my first exposure to a major meteor shower, but I had to wait until 2001 to see the shower in its glory.  That year, from the light-polluted suburbs of Washington, my family and I were treated to a great display.  I gave up counting meteors after reaching 400 in half an hour!  Since 1966 much research had been done in mapping the meteor streams of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, so the 2001 outburst was expected.  Sadly, the same research indicates that we may not see another “storm” until 2099.  What does this mean for this week?  The shower typically produces 15-25 swift, bright meteors per hour for observers in dark locations, and we expect this volume of activity for this go-round.  If you are up for the challenge, start looking after 2:00 am local time after the Moon sets.  You may be rewarded with a few fast, bright meteors.

It’s another good week to look at the Moon if your preference is for evening stargazing.  We are approaching a number of milestones in lunar exploration over the course of the next few weeks.  This week marks the 49th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 12, the second crewed lunar landing.  The Navy crew of Pete Conrad and Alan Bean made the first precision lunar landing and spent a day and a half on the surface, deploying a suite of science instruments and bringing back pieces of the robotic Surveyor 3 lunar probe, which had reached the Moon in April, 1967.  Next month we’ll observe the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 8, the first mission to send humans to the lunar environs.

Saturn and Mars are now the only two bright planets to observe in the evening sky.  You’ll have to act fast to catch Saturn, low in the southwestern sky during the fading twilight hour.  The ringed planet sets at around 7:30 pm, so if you want to catch a glimpse of him in the telescope you should do so as soon as you can spot him after sunset.  

Mars hangs tough in the evening sky, keeping pace with the advancing Sun.  The red planet crosses the meridian at around 6:30 pm shortly after the end of evening twilight.  He has now crossed into the constellation of Aquarius, and there’s little in the way of bright objects to compete with him.  He’ll be close to the Moon on the evening of the 15th.

If you’re up before the Sun you’ve probably noticed the bright glow of Venus announcing the pending dawn.  You’ll find her close to the first-magnitude star Spica for most of the week, and she will be just a degree away from the star on the mornings of the 13th through the 15th.

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