Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2003
STAR TRAK/November 2003
Lunar eclipse, meteor shower and auroras
Viewers in North and South America, Europe, Africa and western and southern Asia will be able to see at least some phase of a total lunar eclipse on the night of Nov. 8-9, when the full moon will pass through Earth's shadow. The event will not be visible in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
A map showing where the lunar eclipse will be visible can be seen at http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/eclipses/article_1072_1.asp. An excellent source of information about all kinds of eclipses is at http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/eclipse.html.
If the sky is clear, observers will probably see the moon shine dark red or orange when totality begins at 8:06 p.m. EST on Nov. 8 (1:06 Universal Time on Nov. 9). The moon will remain entirely in Earth's shadow until 8:31 p.m. EST (1:31 Universal Time), allowing 25 minutes to enjoy the spectacle.
The moon's unusual color during a total eclipse is caused by the orange light of sunsets and sunrises around Earth's rim being bent into Earth's shadow by the atmosphere (the same way a prism works). This orange light then reflects from the moon's surface the way sunlight normally does, and it changes the moon's color. Binoculars will make the moon's color brighter and easier to see, but they are not necessary for viewing the eclipse.
Weather conditions can have varying effects, so an exact prediction of the moon's appearance during an eclipse is not possible. Sometimes its color is a dull gray or brown, depending on debris in the atmosphere.
The eclipse will begin at 6:32 p.m. EST (23:32 Universal Time), when the moon's leading edge will enter Earth's shadow. At first the moon's edge may seem to disappear, but as it goes deeper into the shadow, it should glow dimly orange, red or brown. The moon will take an hour and 34 minutes to completely enter Earth's shadow.
As normal moonlight gradually dims, stars will appear nearby that were not visible before because of the moon's glare.
After the 25-minute period of totality, the moon's normal white color will gradually return for an hour and 33 minutes until it is entirely out of Earth's shadow by 10:04 p.m. EST (3:04 Universal Time), ending the eclipse.
On Nov. 23, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible in a narrow path crossing Antarctica. A partial eclipse will be seen in a much broader area, including most of Australia and New Zealand, southernmost South America and all of Antarctica. More information is available at http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/TSE2003/TSE2003.html.
The annual Leonid meteor shower will peak on the night of Nov. 18-19. The moon will be at third quarter, so fainter meteors will be washed out, but the brighter ones will still streak across the sky for everyone to see.
The Leonid meteors, so named because they appear to radiate from the constellation Leo the Lion, are caused by streams of fast-moving dust particles from Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which rounds the sun every 33 years. After several years of unusually high numbers of Leonids, the shower should be closer to normal this year. That probably means about 30 meteors per hour at the peak of activity.
Watch for meteors after midnight local time as the constellation Leo gets higher in the east. That is when your part of the planet will be rotating into the path of the oncoming meteors. The higher Leo is above the horizon, the more meteors will appear all over the sky. The bright star Regulus is part of Leo and can serve as a marker for the Leonids.
Light pollution wipes out many meteors for observers, so choose a dark site with an open view of as much of the sky as possible. Face eastward and give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark. A lawn chair and blanket will help you stay comfortable as you watch the sky.
More information about meteor showers is available from the American Meteor Society at http://www.amsmeteors.org/showers.html.
The sun sent two massive bursts of particles toward Earth in the last week of October. Observers in North America and northern Europe who were fortunate enough to have a clear sky saw auroral displays that were reported as far south as Arizona. These solar eruptions are unpredictable, and the aurora season is not yet over.
Locations of current auroral activity can be seen at http://www.sec.noaa.gov/pmap/. Click on "Aurora Viewing" for tips on when an aurora may be visible in your area. Information about solar and other space "weather" is available at http://www.spacew.com/. Aurora sightings are reported at http://www.spacew.com/www/aurora.html.
To watch for auroras when they are most likely to happen, sign up for solar activity alerts by e-mail at http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/proamcollab/astroalert/default.asp.
Mars will appear high in the south-southeast as the evening sky darkens during November, fading but still a bright yellow-orange that stands out clearly in that part of the sky. Mars is falling farther behind Earth in its slower orbit, and it no longer blazes in our sky as it did during the summer months.
Venus will be visible about a half hour after sunset, much brighter than Mars but still very low in the southwest. Venus will increase in altitude as the month advances, and it will be prominent in the evening sky by December.
After you locate Venus, use binoculars to find Mercury to the lower right of the brilliant white beacon. You'll need a clear sky and a clear view of the southwestern horizon. Both Venus and Mercury will be gone an hour or so after sunset.
Saturn will rise in the east-northeast around 9 p.m. local time in early November and two hours earlier by month's end. The planet's yellow glow will dominate the constellation Gemini the Twins with its bright white stars Castor and Pollux. Saturn's rings will be a fascinating sight in a telescope when the planet is high in the southern sky after midnight.
Jupiter will rise nearly five hours after Saturn, brighter than every planet except Venus. Jupiter will be high in the southeast by the start of morning twilight.
The moon will be at first quarter on Nov. 1, full on Nov. 9, at third quarter on Nov. 17, new on Nov. 23 and at first quarter again on Nov. 30.