A couple of nice conjunctions bracket the sky tonight, one in early evening, the other at dawn. And a third skywatching treat will fill the hours between them — a meteor shower.
The action begins as evening twilight drains from the sky, with the Moon and the planet Mars in the southwest. Mars looks like a modestly bright orange star. It’s to the lower right of the Moon, by about the width of your fist held at arm’s length.
Fortunately, the Moon is in its crescent phase right now, so it sets about three hours after the Sun. That leaves plenty of dark hours for watching the Leonid meteor shower, which should be at its best tonight.
Earth is flying through the orbital path of a comet, sweeping up grains of “comet dust.” As these tiny particles hit the upper atmosphere, they vaporize, forming the streaks of light known as meteors. The dust is pretty thin at this point in the comet’s orbit, though, so we probably won’t see more than a dozen or so meteors per hour. The best view comes in the wee hours of the morning, as your part of Earth turns most directly into the meteor stream.
By the time the sky begins to lighten, the third part of the triple feature will be in view in the east — a close pairing of the planet Venus and the star Spica. Venus is the “morning star,” so you can’t miss it. Spica will stand close to the lower right of Venus. And the two of them will line up side by side on Sunday morning; more about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.