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Starwatch - November 2010

October 21, 2010

Leonid 300

If you have clear skies overhead early Thursday morning (Nov. 18), take a step outside for a peek at the Leonid meteor shower, which should be raining as many 20 meteors per hour down upon the Earth.

By Deane Morrison

Let’s hope this November is as clear and beautiful as last year’s, especially when the annual Leonid meteor shower comes around. Whether it turns out to be spectacular or not, this year we’ll have to rise early to get the best view of it.

The Leonids radiate from the head of Leo, the lion, peaking this year the night of the 17th-18th. A waxing moon will interfere until it sets around 4 a.m.; still, that leaves a couple of hours before sunrise to watch for meteors as they shoot out of the eastern sky. The Leonids are typically very fast and bright, and more than half can be expected to leave persistent trails.

Also in the morning, watch Venus pop up over the eastern horizon, rising steadily farther ahead of the sun. The queen of planets will be invisible during the first few days of November, since it’s just emerging from a swing between Earth and the sun. But by month’s end the brilliant “morning star” will be rising more than three hours before the sun.

Above Venus, look for the bright star Spica, in Virgo, and then above Spica to see Saturn. The best mornings will be the 3rd and 4th, when a waning sliver of moon joins the planet and star.

Algonquin tribes called November’s full moon the beaver moon because late fall is when the busy beavers went into overdrive, preparing their lodges for winter, and it was also time to lay in a supply of pelts. To see the beaver moon at its roundest before it sets, look to the west by about 7 a.m. the morning of the 21st.

Jupiter rules the evening sky, a bright beacon in the south below the Circlet of Pisces and the high, dominant Great Square of Pegasus. Between the Great Square and W-shaped Cassiopeia, you may spot the oval smudge of light that marks the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest big galaxy to our Milky Way. Best viewing will come in the first week of the month, when the evening sky will be moonless.

Late in the evening, look high in the east to find Perseus, nearly overhead and just southeast of Cassiopeia. Pointing toward Cassiopeia is the hero’s helmet, and just beyond its tip lies a beautiful double star cluster. To find it, wait for a moonless night and use binoculars or a small telescope.

Also in Perseus is a star that fascinated ancient astronomers, who named it Algol, or “the demon star.” It represents the eye of Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon, whose head Perseus carries. Algol earned its sinister reputation by dimming its brightness for a 10-hour period every two days, 20 hours and 49 minutes. Today, astronomers know that Algol is a three-star system, with a big, bright main star and two dimmer ones. Algol “winks”—that is, its brightness dips—when one of the dimmer stars eclipses the main star. 

Standard time resumes at 2 a.m. on the 7th. Set your clocks back one hour.

The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Morris, Duluth and Twin Cities campuses. For more information and viewing schedules, see: Morris, UMN 16-inch telescope schedule:

Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium:

Twin Cities, Department of Astronomy (during fall and spring semesters):

10/21/10 Contact: Deane Morrison, University Relations, (612) 624-2346,

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