The photo at the top of this post is Comet Encke, the parent body of this weekend’s North Taurid meteor shower (image via NASA). Earth crosses the orbit of this comet every November, at which time the debris left behind by Comet Encke, as it orbits the sun, burns up in Earth’s upper atmosphere as North Taurid meteors. So, if you avoid the moon, this is a good weekend for meteor-watching. And why not make a night of it? Watch the North Taurid meteors from late evening until the wee hours after midnight – and also remember Venus in early evening, Jupiter from mid-evening on, and for Mars and Mercury before dawn.
The modest North Taurid shower favors the Northern Hemisphere, and might exhibit as many as 5 to 10 meteors per hour in a dark sky. The peak is expected to fall on the night of November 11/12. But should you have clear skies these next few evenings (November 9/10 or 10/11), keep in mind that the meteor rates may nearly be the same as on the peak night of November 11/12. Although you can start watching this shower at mid-evening, these meteors usually don’t show their best stuff till late night, or around the midnight hour. That’s true no matter where you live worldwide. Moreover, the sky won’t really darken until after the moon sets – around midnight at mid-northern latitudes.
The night sky is chock-full of planets in November 2013, starting with the brightest of them all at nightfall. Simply look into the southwest to west sky at dusk and nightfall to get an eyeful of Venus, the queen of planets. This world ranks as the third-brightest luminary to bedeck the heavens, after the sun and moon. Venus follows the sun below the horizon at early evening, or around 7 to 8 p.m. local time at mid-northern latitudes.
About one and one-half hours after Venus sets, the king planet Jupiter rises in the east-northeast sky somewhere around 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. local time, as seen from mid-northern latitudes. After Jupiter rises, this dazzling world will be out all night long. Jupiter – the fourth-brightest celestial luminary after the sun, moon and Venus – soars highest in the sky at or near 4 a.m. local time.
Mars rises due east by around 2 a.m. The red planet is easily visible to the unaided eye but nowhere matches the brilliance of Venus or Jupiter. In fact, it’s not even as bright as Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. If you’re familiar with Leo, you should be able to spot the planet Mars.
Finally, as the morning darkness begins to give way to dawn, seek for Mercury, the innermost planet, near Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Mercury lurks low in the eastern sky about one hour before sunrise. Mercury will be brighter and easy to see a week from now, on the peak nights of Leonid meteor shower.
Why not make a night of it? Watch Venus this early evening, Jupiter from mid-evening till daybreak, the North Taurid meteors from late evening until dawn, and for Mars and Mercury in the morning hours.