Bakersfield Night Sky – November 6, 2010
By Nick Strobel
Tonight you might be able to see some extra meteors associated with the Taurid meteor shower that has been going on since mid-October and will continue through this month. This particular meteor shower does not produce a lot of meteors but the occasional ones you see tend to be quite bright. Meteor showers are the result of comet dust that has been left behind in the comet's orbit as the comet warmed up when it passed near the Sun and released the dust and rock bits, most the size of a small grain of sand or smaller, mixed in with the ices. The result is a dust trail along the comet's orbit. If the trail intercepts the Earth's orbit, the Earth runs into those comet bits that glow briefly as they burn up high in our atmosphere. The meteors in a meteor shower will appear to come from a particular direction in space called the "radiant". The name of the meteor shower comes from the constellation in which the radiant resides. The dust trail left behind by Comet Encke is particularly spread out and dissipated so the radiant in October and early November is near southern Aries and by mid-November the radiant has shifted to Pleiades and nose of Taurus. The bits of Comet Encke travel at about 28 kilometers/second through our atmosphere. For the Taurids the greatest number of meteors/hour (maybe up to 7/hour) is expected around midnight to 1 AM. New Moon is tonight so you won't have to worry about moon glow drowning out the meteors. The clouds on the other hand...
The Leonid meteor shower in the middle of this month is more famous because the dust trail left behind by Comet Temple-Tuttle has sometimes created a huge number of meteors/hour (i.e., hundreds/hour) but this year we expect a more gentle shower of maybe 20 or so meteors/hour during its peak. The Comet Temple-Tuttle dust trail is fairly narrow and more concentrated around the comet itself than that for Comet Encke of the Taurids so the shower lasts for maybe a couple of days on either side of the peak. The peak of the Leonids will be the pre-dawn mornings of November 17th and 18th (midnight to dawn). One prediction listed on the International Meteor Organization's website says that peak will happen at about sunrise on November 17th. Because the Moon will be in a bright gibbous phase and set at 3 or 4 AM, the best view will between those hours and dawn. The comet bits travelling at around 71 kilometers/second through our air will appear to radiate out of the head of Leo---see the first star chart below.
To find Leo, first locate the Big Dipper part of Ursa Major. The two end stars in the bowl part of the Big Dipper point you to Polaris, the North Star when you extend the line between the two stars northward. Going the other way (southward) will lead you to a backwards question mark on the sky that is the sickle part of Leo. The sickle part is the head of Leo. The best part of meteor showers is that it doesn't take any fancy equipment to enjoy them---just your eyes and a dark sky (okay, a dark sky might require a short car trip out of the city but it will be worth it). In fact, you do NOT want to use binoculars or telescope for a meteor shower as they will magnify one very small part of the sky and the streaks will usually be longer than your binoculars' field of view. Try to find a location where you can see all of the stars of the Little Dipper.
Tomorrow evening (Nov 7th) just after sunset use your binoculars to look low in the southwest to see the very thin Waxing Crescent Moon with two bright red stars on either side of it. On the right will be Mars and to left of the Moon will be Antares, the "rival of Mars", at the heart of Scorpius. About a fist's width held at arm's length to the right of the Moon will be Mercury. It may still be a bit too close to the Sun for you to spot it. The second star chart below shows this view. Throughout November, Mercury will move further from the Sun but it will stay fairly low in the southwest. On November 18th, Mercury will be right below Mars and Mercury will be the brighter of the two. Jupiter continues to outshine every star in the southeast in the early evening and is due south at around 9:30 PM tonight. Venus is now a morning star. Look for it low in the east about 40 minutes before sunrise. Above it will be the star Spica in Virgo and continuing upward in a straight line will be Saturn---see the third star chart below.
Although this month's evening Planetarium show, "Black Holes" is sold out, there are still tickets left for the holiday show "Season of Light" that will be given on the first two Thursdays of December (before we close for the winter break). Tickets must be purchased ahead of time from the BC Ticket Office.
Want to see more of the stars at night and save energy? Shield your lights so that the light only goes down toward the ground. See www.darksky.org for how.
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website www.astronomynotes.com