PLANETS IN CONJUNCTION

by William J. Bechaver

All summer long, we enjoyed magnificent views of all the visible planets arrayed across our skies. Now, one by one, we are losing them as we speed around the Sun, some falling behind, some outpacing us, and this week, a couple are lost to the Sun.

Earlier in the autumn, we lost Venus, as it passed between the Earth and the Sun. It has long since re-emerged in the early morning sky, now climbing higher with each passing day.

This week, two planets pass in conjunction with the Sun, and out of view from Earth.

The first is Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. Though it was directly overhead in the sky just a few months ago, the Earth has now outrun it, and is on the far side of the solar system from it.

Earth, being closer to the Sun, travels around much more quickly than does Jupiter. As a result, it has fallen far behind, as we pass around the Sun. This week, it will be directly opposite the Sun from Earth. On Monday, Jupiter will lie at an astounding distance of almost 600 million miles from Earth, or more than six times more distant than the Sun, with the Sun directly between Jupiter and Earth.

On the very next night, the smallest planet in the solar system will coincidentally be in conjunction with the Sun. Mercury, also being the closest planet to the Sun, travels around much more quickly than does the Earth. It is overtaking us in its orbit, and on Tuesday it will lie directly between the Earth and Sun, at a distance of just over 63 million miles, it is also the closest planet to Earth right now. On the day of conjunction, it will be lost in the sun’s glare, and also unviewable from Earth.

So, both Jupiter and Mercury will be in conjunction with the Sun this week, the smallest very close, and the largest very distant, neither visible from Earth. You may recall that it was a mere month ago that the two planets were in conjunction with each other, forming a nice pairing in the evening sky.

Now we have moved so the Sun is between us, and Mercury has moved between us also, making a direct line of the three planets and our star, Earth, Mercury, Sun, and Jupiter almost directly aligned.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

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LAST BEST VIEW OF MARS

by William J. Bechaver

This week, we will have a last chance to view Mars at its best.

If you go out tonight, Thursday 15 November, just after sunset, and look to the south, you will be able to see a nice pairing of the Moon with Mars.

This will be one of the last best opportunities to see the red planet as it is fading into the distance, and growing dimmer as it recedes.

We are outrunning Mars in its orbit, and as the Earth orbits around the Sun, Mars continually falls farther away. It is already on the distant side of the Sun, and much further away than we are from the Sun.

But tonight, Mars still shines brighter than all the stars in the sky around it. And spectacularly, it will lie only one degree from the first quarter Moon, high in the south at sunset.

The amazing pairing will be visible all throughout the evening, sinking and setting just before midnight.

If you miss the spectacular Mars view, there is still some spectacle to be seen this weekend.

Two days later, on the evening of Saturday 17 November, the Leonid meteor shower will peak. It is generally not the most brilliant of displays, and the waxing Moon will interfere until the early morning hours on Sunday.

The moon will set just after two in the morning, and the skies will remain dark until twilight begins to lighten it around five. So, that will leave about a three hour window to view the evasive Leonids.

But it is well worth a look if the skies are clear, and the conditions favorable. After two, when the Moon has sunk in the west, go outside and look east.

A meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through a debris field of icy particles left behind by a passing comet. The comet responsible for the Leonids is Tempel-Tuttle, which last passed through the inner solar system in 1998. With our dark skies, it will be possible to see about twenty meteors an hour, or one about every three minutes.

So the averages are good, but keep in mind, meteors are irregular, and you may see several in one minute, then wait many minutes before witnessing another. So, be patient, and keep warm, and enjoy one of the smaller meteor showers under the most favorable conditions.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.

• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACESpanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.