This Week’s Sky: October 27 – November 3

Mercury emerges and the Moon reaches first-quarter phase.

Mercury and the thin crescent Moon paired up in the evening sky last January. Mercury's finest showing of the year happens this week. Courtesy Gary Seronik

Mercury and the thin crescent Moon paired up in the evening sky last January. Mercury’s finest showing of 2014 begins this week. Courtesy Gary Seronik

All Week

The long lingering evening planet duo of Mars and Saturn is essentially down to a single wanderer: Mars. The red planet is motoring toward the top of the Sagittarius Teapot this week and sets shortly after 9 p.m., local daylight time. The sky is devoid of naked-eye planets until around 1 a.m., when big, bright Jupiter rises in the east. Jupiter is a prime telescopic target, but you’ll want to wait until the predawn when the planet is highest and at its best.

October 27/28

Moon and Mars

The Moon glides by Mars in the early evening sky.

Tonight and tomorrow night, the crescent Moon will lie within 10 degrees of Mars in the early evening sky. The pairing will make for a pleasing naked-eye sight.

October 30

Seronik-First-Quarter Moon

The first-quarter Moon. Courtesy Gary Seronik

At 7:48 p.m., PDT, the Moon reaches first-quarter phase. As darkness falls, the lunar disc is 30 degrees above the south-southwest horizon in Capricornus, which means better viewing prospects than for last month’s first-quarter Moon.

November 1

This morning Mercury has its greatest elongation from the Sun and lies 19 degrees west of the solar disc. This sets up the year’s most favourable apparition of the speedy planet. (See Weekend Stargazer, below, for more.)

November 2

It’s time to play around with your clocks again. At 2 a.m., daylight saving time officially comes to an end and you have to set your clocks back one hour to return to standard time. (And don’t forget the internal clock on your camera and other electronic devices.) Of course, if you live in a region that has the good sense not to bother with daylight saving time in the first place, you can skip this. For astronomers across most of the country, the end of daylight saving also means having to remember to subtract an additional hour when converting from universal time.

Weekend Stargazer

SE morning sky

The view facing southeast, ½ hour before sunrise on November 1.

The October 31 – November 2 weekend is a good one to start your Mercury watch as the planet begins its most favourable apparition of the year. On Saturday morning (November 1), the planet rises 1 hour, 39 minutes before the Sun (as seen from Toronto, Ontario) and stands 16 degrees above the eastern horizon at sunrise. But as the week goes on, the planet starts losing ground to morning twilight. By next weekend it rises only 1 hour and 22 minutes before the Sun. But, even as it loses altitude, it gains brightness, which partly compensates for its less favourable position.

Mercury apparitions are always short-lived and favourable ones don’t come along very often, so you don’t want to pass up an opportunity to check in with this swiftly moving planet. Mercury’s rapid comings and goings make it an interesting naked-eye sight, but in a telescope, it is a challenging and somewhat unrewarding target. Because the planet never strays far from the Sun, you have to observe it in twilight when it’s near the horizon where viewing conditions are usually poor, or use a go-to telescope to catch it in daylight when it’s higher. This weekend you should be able to make out Mercury’s phase, which is currently just past first-quarter and fattening towards gibbous.

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