Quite a bit of celestial activity is in store for the latter part of November, including two meteor showers and four comets ( ISON, X1 LINEAR, 2P/Encke and R1 Lovejoy), collectively visiting both the morning and evening skies. Three planets, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter, are also impressive in the morning sky. This gives the rare opportunity for skywatchers to enjoy these events in the same night sky.
The N. Taurids have already peaked at this writing, but they are a spread out bunch giving plenty of time to catch stragglers. The radiant is near the Pleiades, just above Taurus the Bull in the evening sky. You can distinguish them by their pale yellow to rudy red streaks.
The Leonids peak this weekend, on Sunday the 17th, although this shower is also stretched over several weeks. The Leonids have two distinctive qualities. They tend to generate 10 to 20 meteors per hour, but also have the ability to “storm”, in which case you cannot even keep count. This happened as recently as 2004 and 2005. They are also noted for their ability to produce fireballs, which can leave long-lasting trails. This year the shower will be subdued in the morning sky due to a Full Moon also on the 17th. So the best time to view them is after midnight and mostly towards dawn as the moon sets in the west. The radiant is near the sickle of Leo the Lion.
Since you are already up in the predawn sky, take a try at the four comets visible in binoculars, with one reportedly visible with the naked eye at this writing.
Comet ISON is the one which has stirred most of the attention the last several days, as it has brighten now reportedly to naked eye visibility. The past several weeks however have been disappointing, difficult even in binoculars. By now it has become clear that the comet is more rocky than icy, which supports that it may survive its perihelion 800,000 mile close skip across the Sun’s surface on the 28th. The comet ISON may still be the “Comet of the Century”, giving a spectacular show in the dawn hours of early December. Or it may crash into the Sun in a dismal death.
For binocular observers, Comet Lovejoy has become the favorite for viewing, as it is just short of naked eye visibility but easy even in modest binoculars. The comet is traveling roughly parallel with ISON, currently just above the sickle of Leo. This is also the radiant for the Leonids, so early dawn hours promise quite the show. It is well placed after mid-night and high in the sky pre-dawn.
(Comet ISON photographed in a backyard telescope)
Comets X1 Linear and 2p/Encke pose a bit more of a challenge. Comet Linear is well placed high in Leo, although not bright and probably requires a small telescope to view appreciatively. Comet Encke is bright but has a small viewing window due to its location close to the eastern horizon just before sunrise.
The planet Jupiter is high in the evening sky by mid-night, and outshines everything except the Full Moon. Mars is well placed for viewing, but requires a moderate size telescope to make out any detail on its small disc. Mercury is low on the eastern horizon, but pre-dawn offering plenty of time to spot it before sunrise. The planet Venus shines bright, low in the western evening sky.