All planets visible, but the smallest steal the show

Alan Pickup

Author: Alan Pickup
The maps show the sky at 21:00 GMT on the 1st, 20:00 on the 16th and 19:00 on the 30th.

Seven planets are on view in November’s night sky, but it is the two smallest, Mars and Mercury, that may be of the greatest interest.

Following its opposition on 14 October, Mars is now fading and receding but it remains a prominent and enticing object as it climbs from the east at nightfall to dominate the southern sky by our map times and cross the meridian some 90 minutes later.

More than halving in brightness from magnitude -2.1 on the 1st to -1.1 on the 30th, Mars’ distance grows from 70 million to 96 million km. It sits well to the right of the Moon (the Hunter’s Moon) on 30 September and much closer to the Moon on the night of the 25th. Now moving slowly in Pisces, it reaches a stationary point on the 25th when its progress reverses from westerly to easterly.

Telescope users will be eager to glimpse its surface features before its small ochre disk grows much smaller – this month it shrinks from 20 to 15 arcseconds in diameter. Telescopes or binoculars, and a better chart than I can provide here, let us spot the two outermost planets, Uranus and Neptune, which lie to the east and west of Mars and shine at magnitude 5.7 and 7.8 respectively.

The normally-elusive Mercury is on the verge of its year’s best appearance in our morning twilight. Between the 3rd and the 10th, when it stands furthest west of the Sun (19°), it triples in brightness from magnitude 0.7 to -0.5 and its altitude in the east-south-east one hour before sunrise grows from 5° to 8°. The tiny innermost planet improves a little further to magnitude -0.7 but falls slowly back into the twilight until it rises only one hour before the Sun by the 30th.

To the right of Mercury is Virgo’s brightest star, Spica, while still higher and to the right is the brilliant (magnitude -4.0) Venus. Venus-rise for Edinburgh changes from 03:49 GMT on the 1st to 05:29 on the 30th, while its height above our south-eastern horizon at sunrise drops from 26° to 17°. Have your camera ready for an impressive sight on the morning of the 13th when the slender earthlit Moon lies 5° below-left of Venus and 8° above-right of Mercury.

Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 07:20/16:31 on the 1st to 08:18/15:44 on the 30th. The Moon is at last quarter on the 8th, new on the 15th and at first quarter on the 22nd. The full moon on the morning of the 30th brings the last of 2020’s four penumbral lunar eclipses as the Moon slips through the southern fringe of the Earth’s shadow in space. Observers across North America may see a little darkening of the Moon’s northern part, but moonset occurs too soon after the start of the eclipse for anything to be noticed from Scotland.

Our nights still begin with the Summer Triangle of bright stars, Vega, Deneb and Altair, high in the south. Shining brightly at magnitude -2.2 to -2.0 below the Triangle is Jupiter, but, since it is barely 11° high for Edinburgh, we need an unobstructed view to the south-south-west to see it or its fainter neighbour Saturn, magnitude 0.6, which stands above and to its left.

Both planets are tracking eastwards (to the left) against the stars of Sagittarius, the gap between them shrinking from 5° on the 1st to only 2.3° by the 30th – by 21 December they are destined to converge to a mere 0.1°. Catch the young Moon below-left of the two on the 19th.

By our star map times, the two giant planets are setting in the south-west and the Summer Triangle has toppled into the west. Above and to the right of Mars in the south is the Square of Pegasus whose upper-left star, Alpheratz, belongs to Andromeda. The latter’s other main stars, Mirach and Almach, stand level with Alpheratz to its left, while a spur of lesser stars above Mirach leads to the oval glow of the Andromeda Galaxy. Often called Messier 31 or M31, this is the sister spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way and, at its distance of 2.5 million light years, is often held to be the most distant object we can see with our unaided eyes – binoculars show it easily.

The Pleiades star cluster in Taurus is climbing in the east to herald the glorious winter constellations centered on Orion which is rising due east. Orion, with its three Belt stars pointing down to Sirius, climbs to cross the meridian six hours after our map times. By then, Mars is sinking in the west, Capella in Auriga is the brightest star overhead and Leo stands in the east at about the same height as Mars.

Meteors of the annual Leonids shower reach their peak this month as they stream from the Sickle of Leo, the reversed question-mark of stars that curl to the north of Leo’s main star, Regulus. The display of very swift meteors, with the brighter ones leaving glowing trains in their wake, lasts from the 6th to the 30th but most are seen during the few mornings around the 17th and 18th.

We have been treated to Leonid meteor storms in some years when the parent comet, Temple-Tuttle, has been nearby in its 33-years orbit of the Sun. Sadly, the comet is not due to return until 2031, so meteor rates, even under ideal dark skies, are expected to be as low as 10-20 meteors per hour in 2020. Don’t expect to notice any Leonids until the Sickle climbs clear of our horizon after midnight.

Diary for 2020 November.

  • 2nd 08h Moon 6° S of Pleiades
  • 3rd 08h Moon 5° N of Aldebaran
  • 7th 20h Moon 2.6° N of Praesepe
  • 8th 14h Last quarter
  • 9th 11h Moon 5° N of Regulus
  • 10th 17h Mercury furthest W of Sun (19°)
  • 12th 21h Moon 3° N of Venus
  • 13th 03h Moon 7° N of Spica
  • 13th 21h Moon 1.7° N of Mercury
  • 15th 05h New moon
  • 15th 13h Venus 4° N of Spica
  • 15th 19h Mars stationary (motion reverses from W to E)
  • 18th 05h Peak of Leonids meteor shower
  • 19th 09h Moon 2.5° S of Jupiter
  • 19th 15h Moon 2.9° S of Saturn
  • 22nd 05h First quarter
  • 25th 20h Moon 5° S of Mars
  • 29th 14h Moon 6° S of Pleiades
  • 30th 09h Full moon and penumbral lunar eclipse
  • 30th 14h Moon 5° N of Aldebaran

This is an extended version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on October 31 2020, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.