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Leonid meteors, Comet ISON before dawn on November 18

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Tonight for November 17, 2013

Venus at nightfall

First thing after sunset in November 2013, catch the dazzling planet Venus in the southwest at dusk and nightfall. Venus will set at early evening, an hour or so before Jupiter rises.

Jupiter and Gemini stars

At mid-evening, or around 8 to 9 p.m. in mid-November 2013, look for the planets Jupiter and the Gemini stars, Castor and Pollux to rise over the eastern horizon.

Leo and Mars

In the wee hours after midnight, or 1 to 2 a.m., watch the constellation Leo the Lion and the planet Mars to climb into November’s starry sky

Last, but hopefully not least,  Comet Ison couples up with the star Spica in the predawn sky and the Mercury comes up at early dawn.

Last, but hopefully not least, Comet ISON couples up with the star Spica in the predawn sky and the Mercury comes up at early dawn.

Our featured chart at top shows the radiant point for the Leonid meteor shower, near the star Algieba in the constellation Leo the Lion. This year, as a matter of fact, Mars is found in front of Leo the Lion, too. Mars finally climbs above the eastern horizon around 1:30 to 2:30 in the morning. To cap it all off, try catching Comet ISON and the planet Mercury in the southeast sky shortly before dawn. Binoculars may come in handy!

This year, the full moon is sure to put a damper on this year’s Leonid shower. Even so, watching just one meteor flying across the sky can count as a big thrill. However, you can always watch the planets. The charts on the right show tonight’s procession of planets, starting with Venus at evening dusk and ending with Mercury at morning dawn. And don’t forget Comet Ison near the Virgo star Spica before dawn, though the bright waning gibbous moon may well wash it from view!

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Unfortunately for meteor buffs, the moon turns full on Sunday, November 17, at 15:16 Universal Time. What this means is that everyone worldwide will see a full-looking moon lighting up the nighttime from dusk till dawn. In years where you have a moonless night – at a site located far from city lights – you might see as many as 10 to 15 meteors per hour. But not this year!

The illustration on the right depicts a Leonid meteor storm in the year 1833. It shows what the Leonid shower might look like in a year that this shower erupts into storm, bombarding the sky with thousands of meteors – sometimes also called shooting stars or falling stars – per hour. Will there be a Leonid storm in 2013? That’s one prediction we can make with a fair amount of certainty, and the answer is no. No storm or heightened meteor activity is anticipated for the Leonid meteor shower in 2013.

On a dark, moonless night, we typically see the most Leonid meteors streaking the sky in the hour before before dawn because that’s when the constellation Leo the Lion is found highest in the sky. Despite the abundance of moonlit tonight, remember that four planets should be bright enough to overcome the Lunar glare. Once again, those wanting to make a night of it can observe Venus in the southwest at dusk and nightfall, Jupiter rising in the east around mid-evening, Mars rising in the east an hour or two after midnight, and Mercury climbing over the east-southeast horizon as darkness meets the dawn.

Many ask about the radiant points of meteor showers. Please know that you don’t have to locate the radiant point to watch the Leonid shower, for these meteors fly all through the starry heavens. But it’s fun to know where the radiant lies in the sky. When tracing the paths of the Leonid meteors backward, they appear to radiate from the constellation Leo the Lion. Therefore, the meteors in this annual shower are named for this constellation. As seen from mid-northern latitudes, Leo rises over eastern horizon around 1 a.m. After rising, Leo then climbs upward and westward, soaring to its highest point in the southern sky around 6:30 a.m. local time.

Every year – in November – our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of the Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Debris from this comet burns up in the Earth’s upper atmosphere to create the annual Leonid shower. The Leonids are generally a modest shower, but this shower has benn been known to create rich meteor storms. No Leonid meteor storm is expected for 2013, however.

Find a dark sky away from pesky artificial lights, enjoy the comfort of a reclining lawn chair and sleeping bag, and enjoy the 2013 Leonid meteor shower under the light of the full moon.

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