Sky Gazing for Insomniacs

By Bob Berman|Tuesday, November 01, 1994
RELATED TAGS: SOLAR SYSTEM
Like a badly loaded washing machine, the sky is out of balance this month, as all but one of the planets have gathered into a lopsided array at one end of the sky. That same sector boasts the brightest stars and constellations as well. As if gerrymandered by cosmic politicos, a single neighborhood has been left with all the goodies.

Don’t gaze upward just after nightfall, though--you’ll be jumping the gun. True, the region has subtle treasures: the dim but famous constellations fashioned from Greek legends. Cetus, Cepheus, and their friends certainly contain delights for the experienced sky watcher. But if subtlety makes you yawn--if you’re the kind who likes steak rather than eggplant, fireworks rather than poetry--then the solution is to go to sleep. The in-your-face brilliance emerges just before dawn, between 5:30 and 6 a.m. So if you’re an early riser or a certified insomniac, you’re in business. Step outside or pull up a chair to your east- and south-facing windows.

The premier player is Venus, performing her most spellbinding predawn routine in years. The way the solar system’s plane meets our horizon makes Venus’s morning appearances optimal when they occur in the autumn. Now is such a time, as the orbital motion of that nearest planet unfolds before our eyes. November’s first week finds Venus impossibly low, with Mercury hovering above it. But each morning at dawn Venus stands higher in the southeast, racing ahead of us at a speed about 10,000 miles per hour brisker than our own. At midmonth Venus is higher than Mercury, with that much dimmer planet to its left.

By month’s end, Venus stands conspicuously high and nearly as bright as it ever gets, a truly dazzling presence the casual observer might mistake for an aircraft landing light. This is the morning star at her best, and the ultimate arrives November 30, when the crescent moon nearly touches Venus. It’s the beautiful star-and-crescent motif, echoed throughout history. Now, this is a sight that’s worth getting up for.

After getting your fill of Venus, turn to the high southern sky, where orange Mars holds court. Mars’ smaller size and less reflective surface make it much less dazzling than Venus, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Mars hasn’t been this bright since 1992, and it’s now marching toward its February maximum.

You might also want to catch some falling stars. At midmonth the Leonid meteors add six to ten meteors an hour to the normal background rate of six. But your being up before dawn will bring you extra meteors for a different, more intriguing reason: you’re now facing forward in space. The Earth has spun you around to the pilot’s seat, the lookout spot where you gaze toward where our planet is heading. No wonder your viewing site is now smashing into many more chunks of stone and metal than earlier in the night, when you were on Earth’s back side.

If you live under a really dark sky, you may see the elusive zodiacal light, a cone-shaped glow tapering upward from the east. Sunlight reflected from distant dust particles in the solar system’s plane causes this so-called false dawn. From our midnorthern latitudes, the ghostly zodiacal light is visible only in the autumn.

Reasons enough to set the alarm? Here’s one more: all these celestial wonders are followed by the riotous color of sunrise, a glorious novelty not seen anywhere else in the known universe.
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