A Fantastic Monday Morning Sky Show

This is worth waking up for.

On Monday morning, Nov. 5th, anyone willing to step outside before dawn will see a fantastic display of stars and planets—and maybe a couple of spaceships, too.

The planets: Venus, Saturn and Mars.

Venus is the ridiculously luminous “star” hanging low in the east. You can’t miss it—especially because the crescent Moon is hanging nearby. The closely-spaced pair is as lovely as anything you will ever see in the heavens.

If you can, tear your eyes away from Venus and the Moon. Just above them hangs Saturn, a delicate yellow beauty that cries out for the attention of your telescope; even small ‘scopes reveal Saturn’s breathtaking rings. And above Saturn, almost directly overhead, shines Mars. It is bright, distinctly orange, and for reasons science cannot fully explain, a little hypnotic.

The stars: Too many to name!

You won’t be the only one looking at the planets. Orion the Hunter is there, too, outlined in the sky by an hour-glass of first magnitude stars. Joining Orion is Castor, Pollux, Regulus, Aldebaran and brightest of all, Sirius, the blue-white dog star. This stellar sprawl frames the planets in a scene guaranteed to spellbind—that is, until something comes along to break the spell.

That would be the spaceships: Discovery and the International Space Station

The two orbiters are due to fly over many US towns and cities on Monday morning. If things go according to plan, Discovery will undock from the ISS at 5:32 am EST (updates), which means the two ships will appear as distinct points of bright light, side-by-side, gliding together past Mars, Sirius, Orion, Venus and the Moon. Amazing! Check NASA’s Skywatch web site for spotting times.

What comes next may strain the credulity of some readers, but it is true. In addition to the stars, planets, spaceships and lunar close encounters, there is also an exploding comet.

Comet 17P/Holmes burst into view last week when something happened to the comet’s core — a collapse, a fracture, a comet-quake? No one knows!—causing the comet to surge in brightness almost a million-fold. It is now visible to the unaided eye as an expanding fuzzball in the constelation Perseus similar in brightness to the stars of the Big Dipper. To find the comet, first face Mars and then spin around 180-degrees: sky map. It’s a must-see target for backyard telescopes.

Nov. 5th: Set your alarm!

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