Astronomy is said to be the people’s science in part because anyone, regardless of training, can participate. There is so much you can observe in the sky even without a telescope, and of course meteors – also called shooting stars – are high on the list. Observing planets counts as a big thrill, too. On this late October 2013 night, you can catch two planets in the evening, sporadic meteors at late night, plus the moon and Mars before dawn.
Given clear skies, here’s what you can expect to see this evening. Shortly after sunset, the planet Venus lights up the southwest sky but sets fairly early in the evening. If you look outside early enough this evening, you can’t miss this dazzling world because it ranks as the third-brightest celestial body after the sun and moon.
By mid-to-late evening, watch for the planet Jupiter. It’s the next-brightest celestial body after Venus, and it’ll rise in the east sky at roughly 11 p.m. local daylight-saving time. Once Jupiter rises, the king planet stays out for rest of the night. Since Venus will have long since set, Jupiter will be the brightest starlike object up there.
No meteor shower is really on tap for tonight, yet there’s still a good chance that you’ll see some meteors in a dark, open sky. Meteor showers are annually recurring events, but there are fewer than 20 major showers per year, and of those typically only two or three can be counted on for a good show. However, if you are willing to accept 5 or 6 meteors per hour, then the next meteor display is tonight – or in general any dark night! That’s about the average that can be expected for “sporadic” or “random” meteors, meaning those that are not associated with any known meteor shower. They are just bits of debris entering our atmosphere from space.
The best time to look for these sporadic meteors is after local mid-night and when there is little or no moon in the sky. (I emphasize mid-night to mean halfway between sunset and the following sunrise, which because of daylight-saving time and geographical conditions is not necessarily the same as clock-time midnight). You might see a few Taurid meteors added to the mix, although the two Taurid meteor showers won’t peak for another week or two.
Then cap off the night by using the waning crescent moon to locate the red planet Mars in the wee hours before dawn on October 30.
Bottom line: In late October 2013, you can see the planets Venus, Jupiter and Mars. Although no major meteor shower is happening tonight, you might also watch for sporadic meteors.