Earthshine, meteor showers, and all 7 planets to make appearances in Southern Utah sky

ST. GEORGE —The Leonids meteor shower has returned to liven up the skies of Southern Utah as all seven planets will make a showing around sunrise or sunset as they continue their journey around the sun.

The year 2020 has been anything but typical, and the same holds true for skywatchers across Southern Utah and beyond. So buckle up — there are amazing sights to see from now through the end of the year.

A video of celestial and planetary events to watch for in the coming days and weeks courtesy of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory can be seen at the top of this report. 

The great conjunction of the gas giants: Wednesday-Sunday 

The planets in the solar system are among the brightest “stars” in the evening sky, and Jupiter, the largest planet, about 1,300 times the mass of Earth, is the fourth brightest object visible from Earth. It is surpassed only by the sun, moon and of course, Venus. Jupiter is so big, in fact, that all the other planets in the solar system could fit inside of it — with room to spare.

About every 20 years or so, Saturn and Jupiter pass each other in what is known as the great conjunction, which occurs when the planets are located along the same line of sight in space when viewed from earth. And this year’s convergence is special — since both planets will also be at their closest approach to earth when the galactical reunion takes place, closer than they have been in nearly 400 years, NASA says.

The last time the phenomena occurred was in 1623.

In the northern hemisphere, look for Jupiter above the southern horizon in the early evening sky after night falls. It is hard to miss since it’s brighter than any star as it passes through the constellation Scorpius.

Sharing the celestial landscape, Saturn will make a great show as it passes through the constellation Sagittarius, the next constellation to the east from Scorpius. And, while not as bright as Jupiter the giant, it still ranks right up there with the brightest stars in the night sky and will engage Jupiter in an incredibly close conjunction Sunday.

Inner rocky planets: November – December

Mercury, the smallest of the planets visible to the naked eye, will be at its brightest and easiest to spot in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise Monday through Sunday.

Also in the eastern sky just before dawn is Venus, the planet with a nearly circular orbit and a diameter that is about 400 miles less than Earth’s. The planet shines with a steady silvery light and will be at its brightest an hour before dawn through the end of December.

Mars, the red planet that made its closest approach to Earth in 15 years, according to NASA, continues to recede and will gradually become dimmer through the end of the year.

Outer gas giants: November – December 

Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun and the first to be discovered by scientists, will be brightest in the morning sky just before dawn through the end of December. It can be readily identified with good binoculars, but a small telescope may reveal a tiny greenish disk.

Saturn and Jupiter will be particularly bright after sunset Nov. 19, 2020 | Image courtesy of NASA, St. George News

Discovered in 1831 by William Herschel, it was named after the Greek god Ouranos, the earliest of the lords of the heavens, and is the only planet to be named after a Greek god. Dubbed as one of the ice giants, more than 80% of the blue-green planet’s mass is made up of a fluid mix of water, methane and ammonia ice. Uranus is also known for its dramatic tilt that causes its axis to point nearly directly at the sun — as if it was tipped over from a collision with an object that scientists say was twice the size of Earth.

Neptune has spent the entire year in the constellation of Aquarius — the water carrier — and shares the early-morning skies with Uranus, shining at its brightest shortly before dawn, when the bluish-hued world will only be visible with good binoculars or a telescope.

Leonid Meteor Shower: Monday through Tuesday 

The Leonids peak during mid-November each year and are considered to be one of the major annual showers that shoot about 15 meteors an hour. While they don’t stack up to the Perseids in terms of numbers, what they lack in volume they more than make up for in brightness and color, according to NASA. Leonids are some of the brightest and most colorful meteors, and they are fast — shooting across the sky at more than 44 miles per second, or roughly 158,000 miles per hour.

Leonid meteor shower in 2015 | Photo courtesy of NASA, St. George News

In Southern Utah, peak viewing conditions for the Leonids begin Monday at dusk and continue until dawn on Tuesday. No special equipment or advanced skills are needed to view the celestial show. This year, with only a waxing crescent moon and clear skies forecasted across the region, the sky gazing event will take place amid clear dark skies and cold temperatures.

Additionally, the Interactive Meteor Shower Sky Map, which also comes with a visibility conditions meter, can help maximize the viewing experience.

Meteors in annual showers are named for the point in the starry sky from which they appear to radiate, and Leonids are named after the constellation Leo the Lion, because they radiate outward from the vicinity of stars representing the lion’s mane, according to EarthSky.

Leonids are known to shoot fireballs and earth grazer meteors, which are large explosions of light and color that continue long after the average meteor streak disappears, This is due to the fact that fireballs originate from larger particles of cometary material, which also makes them brighter — a lot brighter.

The Leonids occur when the Earth passes through the debris left by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which takes approximately 33 years to make one orbit around the Sun. Once every 33 years, or so, the Leonid showers become a storm, that at its peak can send hundreds to thousands of meteors shooting across the sky every hour — as was seen in 2002 when the last storm of shooting stars streaked across the sky. The next storm is expected to hit in 2035, according to NASA.

The Pleiades Family – Through November

Map showing Pleiades, a bright cluster of stars formed together that can be seen in November | Image courtesy of NASA, St. George News

Evenings in November are a good time to start looking for the Pleiades, a bright cluster of stars that is best enjoyed during the fall and winter months in the northern hemisphere. Known as an open star cluster, which is a loosely bound grouping of thousands of stars that formed together that are slowly drifting apart over time, the brightest of which are visible to the naked eye, hundreds can be seen with binoculars or a telescope.

For skywatchers across Southern Utah, the cluster can be seen by looking toward the east a couple of hours after sunset.

The Pleiades cluster is estimated to be about 100 million years old and is roughly 400 light-years away. The brightest stars in the Pleiades neighborhood are many times brighter than Earth’s star. In fact, if one were to visit the Pleiades and gaze homeward, the Sun would not be visible without a telescope.

Planet Earth shines: Tuesday through Friday

According to NASA, a bright full moon can light up the nighttime landscape, but the Earth can illuminate the night side of the moon as well, otherwise known as Earthshine — or sunlight that been reflected off of Earth that bounces off the moon and back to the human eye. Across the globe, including Southern Utah, the best time to view Earthshine is just after sunset Tuesday through Friday.

Earthshine is easiest to observe in the few days before and after the new moon when a part of the moon that’s directly lit by the Sun appears as a slim crescent. This is partly because there’s less of the bright, sunlit surface to compete with the dimmer Earthshine-lit portion, and partly because the phases of Earth and the moon complement one another, when the moon a slim crescent in the sky, and viewed from Earth it can appear nearly full.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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