Sky Watch: November 2013

Sky Watch


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Here are the monthly sky watch highlights. Each month, we share the wonders of the universe to help you explore the night sky from your own backyard. (Note: Times listed below are ET.)

November 2013

by Bob Berman, as featured in
The Old Farmer's Almanac

The year’s only total eclipse is of the Sun, occurring on the 3rd for observers in the equatorial Atlantic Ocean and west central Africa. Saturn is gone, but Venus starts to show some elevation gain as it noticeably brightens to magnitude -4.8. The Moon, dangling below invisible Pluto, stands above Venus on the 6th. The Moon hovers just above Uranus on the 13th, to the lower right of Jupiter on the 21st, and to the right of faint Mars on the 27th. Orange Mars is now rising at 1:00 A.M.  Mercury, at magnitude -0.7, appears low in the east at about 40 minutes before sunrise, where it closely meets returning planet Saturn, which shines at a bright magnitude 0.6, on the 25th and 26th

Sky Map November 2013

by Jeff DeTray
Visit Jeff's site at

Astronomer Jeff DeTray has created the sky map below to help you navigate the November sky.

This month's highlight: Keeping an Eye on ISON

Comet ISON continues its long journey from deep space to the inner solar system. A key milestone in the life of the comet occurs on November 28, when Comet ISON swings around the Sun, passing very close to the blazingly hot surface of our star. It's only after this close encounter that we will know if Comet ISON will become a celestial celebrity or merely an interesting visitor.

What is a comet, anyway? A comet is comprised of material left over from the formation of our solar system. Comets are often described as “dirty snowballs.” Imagine a mixture of water, carbon dioxide (“dry ice”), dust, dirt, pebbles and other debris all packed together and frozen into a solid lump by the extremely cold temperature of deep space. That's a comet for most of its existence. In the case of Comet ISON, the “lump” is estimated to be somewhere between 1 and 3 miles in diameter. This icy lump is the nucleus, the only solid portion  of the comet.

Like nearly all comets, Comet ISON spent most of its life in deep space, one of trillions of icy lumps (comet nuclei) floating on the very fringe of our solar system, a place so remote that the Sun is just another star in the sky. For eons, Comet ISON was nothing more than an anonymous, invisible “dirty snowball.” Then, something disturbed the motion of this particular lump. It might have been nothing more than a chance collision with another lump of ice and dust. This random event changed the motion of our nucleus ever so slightly, but just enough to nudge it slowly toward the Sun.

Once on its way inward, the Sun's gravity pulled on the nucleus, weakly at first, but drawing it ever closer and ever faster. Eventually, our “dirty snowball” began to be affected by the heat from the Sun, and as the outer surface of the icy nucleus started to un-freeze, a cloud of gas and dust formed around the nucleus. This cloud, called the coma, reflects sunlight, and so the comet brightened to the point where it could be seen in the telescopes of Earthbound astronomers and given a name: Comet ISON. The photo below from astronomer Adam Block shows Comet ISON as photographed on October 8 using a large telescope. Chemical elements “boiling” from the nucleus give the coma a greenish hue, and the long tail is comprised of dust and gas being pushed by the solar wind.

Credit: Adam Block

Also, here is a video of Comet ISON from October 27, showing the comet moving in front of the stars since it is closer to Earth than the stars.

On the morning of November 17, before sunrise, you may be able to spot Comet ISON with large binoculars (or a telescope) just above the bright star Spica, as shown on this month's map. At best you will see the comet as a faint, fuzzy spot of light. If you can't see the comet, all is not lost. With luck, we will have a much better viewing opportunity in December. More on that next month!

While you are comet watching, don't miss the parade of planets on display in this part of the sky. Starting from the horizon, you may see Saturn and above it, Mercury. Higher in the sky sits Mars. Mercury is an especially good catch, and relatively few people have ever seen it. Mercury seldom gets very far from the Sun, so it is normally lost in the Sun's glare.

NOVEMBER Sky Map: Click to View PDF

November 2013 Sky Map

Sky map produced using Chris Marriott's Skymap Pro

Explore the sky night from your own backyard. A printable black and white map is provided below!

November 2013 Sky Map PrintableClick for Printable Sky Map (PDF)
Just click, print, and bring outside!


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In the Upper Peninsula

In the Upper Peninsula Michigan and think I am seeing the comet above the horizon as sun is setting looking South. Correct or planet?!

Hi Scott, You are seeing the

Hi Scott,

You are seeing the planet Venus, which is currently low in the south at sunset.

Comet ISON was briefly visible to the naked eye about 10 days ago before dawn in the eastern sky. Even then, it required exceptionally clear skies to see ISON without at least binoculars.

Comet ISON is fast approaching the Sun. The comet will swing around the Sun on November 28, at which time its fate will be determined. Already there are signs that the solid portion of Comet ISON may have been vaporized by the Sun. On the other hand, there are some observations from spacecraft that indicate the comet is still holding together.

We won't know anything for certain until Comet ISON rounds the Sun on November 28. The comet could disappear completely upon its close encounter with the Sun, but it might survive and be visible again after the encounter.

We just don't know! Everyone from amateur star gazers to professional astronomers will just have to be patient.

Jeff DeTray

Thanks Jeff! Really

Thanks Jeff! Really appreciate the detailed response! Amazing how bright Venus is up here (visiting from Chicago)!

I live in central arkansas

I live in central arkansas will we be able to see this comet?

Hi Sheila, Yes, you will be

Hi Sheila,

Yes, you will be able to see Comet ISON. In fact, it has brightened considerably just in the past few days, and you can see it RIGHT NOW if you hurry! Comet ISON is currently visible to the naked eye.

You can see the comet this week if you get outside before sunrise and have a clear view to the southeast. Use the Sky Map on this page as a guide.

The Sky Map shows the position of Comet ISON as it was on the morning of November 17 when it was just above the bright star Spica. The comet moves a little lower each day and is now below Spica. Look for a small hazy spot below Spica.

But hurry! The comet is moving lower in the sky every day and will be lost in the Sun's glare within a few days.

Never, EVER look directly at the Sun! Not even with eye protection!

For now, the ONLY safe time to look for Comet ISON is in the early morning before the Sun rises.

Jeff DeTray

Checking sky we have had

Checking sky we have had strange couds lately like little round puffy white clouds! And covers the whole sky not much space between these thousands of small circular clouds

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