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The Sky This Week, 2019 November 12 - 19

Welcome back to an old friend
Orion rising, Blue Ridge Regional Park, near Bluemont, Virginia, 2014 December 2.
Orion rising, Blue Ridge Regional Park,
near Bluemont, Virginia, 2014 December 2.

A waning Moon moves into the morning sly this week, coursing through the stars of the Great Winter Circle which will be high in the east at local midnight.  Last Quarter occurs on the 19th at 4:11 pm Eastern daylight Time.  Look for Luna just over two degrees north of the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus, The Bull on the evening of the 13th.  By the end of the week the Moon will be courting the rising stars of the springtime sky.

The annual Leonids meteor shower peaks on the night of November 16-17.  This shower has a very checkered history, producing spectacular displays in years that are multiples of the 33-year period of its parent comet.  Known as Comet 55/P Tempel-Tuttle, it was discovered independently by astronomers Ernst Wilhelm Tempel in France and Horace P. Tuttle at the U.S. Naval Observatory.  Some of the most intense displays of meteors in recorded history are the result of Earth passing through the orbital plane of the comet when it is near perihelion in its 33 year circuit of the Sun.  In 1833 and 1966 the shower turned out to be a storm, with some observers recording 10,000 meteors per hour!  The shower was also quite intense in 1999, and it surprised many people with the intensity of its display in 2001.  I watched that shower from a park in Alexandria, Virginia, and gave up counting after seeing some 400 meteors over half an hour.  In most of the “off” years the shower produces about 15 to 20 meteors per hour, and this year’s waning gibbous Moon won’t help, but it’s possible that it can still surprise us.  The radiant is near the “head” of Leo, the Lion, which will be climbing in the eastern sky in the hours before dawn.

The bright stars of the Great Winter Circle can now be seen rising in the east in the late evening and dominate the eastern sky by midnight.  As we approach the longest and darkest nights of the year, the Circle hosts nine of the 25 brightest stars in the entire sky.  The first two stars that you’ll see cresting the horizon are Aldebaran, the ruddy eye of Taurus, the Bull, and Capella, the yellow-hued star that leads Auriga, the Charioteer.  Aldebaran shines at a distance of 66.6 light-years, while Capella is a bit closer at just under 48 light-years.  Capella appears to be a single star to the unaided eye, but powerful telescopes have revealed that it is actually comprised of a close pair of yellow giant stars orbited by a pair of red dwarfs, thus making Capella a four star system.    

By 10:00 pm a welcome wintertime friend may be seen climbing steadfastly above the eastern horizon.  Even by the strong light of the gibbous Moon, the bright and colorful stars of Orion stand out, reminding us that longer and colder nights are yet to come.  Orion is probably the most-recognized constellation in all of the heavens since he is visible from almost all of the inhabited places on the Earth.  We find depictions and legends of him dating back to some of the earliest civilizations.  The ancient Babylonians associated him with fierce winter storms, as did even older Hindu legends.  To the ancient Egyptians Orion was associated with Osiris, their lord of the underworld and one of the oldest gods in their pantheon.  By the 5th Dynasty Orion is incorporated in countless magical spells written on the burial chamber walls of pharaohs to help their souls cross into the underworld and sit with Osiris.  These so-called Pyramid Texts evolved over the next 1000 years into a massive work known as the Amduat, a collection of over 700 spells and incantations to guide the dead king through the 12 hours of darkness that ultimately lead to the daylight realm of Re, the principal Sun god.

Venus spends the week chasing down Jupiter in the southwestern sky as evening twilight deepens.  The dazzling planet is beginning a steady climb into the evening sky while Old Jove drifts steadily toward the approaching Sun.  You should have no trouble telling which planet is which, since Venus is some five times brighter than Jupiter.

Saturn lingers in the southeastern sky, setting about two hours after the end of evening twilight.  If you have a clear view in that direction, you have a good hour or so to enjoy a good view of this far-flung gaseous world, now approaching a distance of nearly one billion miles from Earth.