November new moon 2020: Dark sky sets the stage for meteors, planets and constellations

The new moon occurs on Sunday, Nov. 15, at 12:07 a.m. EST (0507 GMT), just two days before the Leonid meteor shower reaches its peak. Without any moonlight to pollute the view, skywatchers may see some meteors in the night sky. Jupiter, Saturn and Mars will reign in the evening sky, while Mercury and Venus will make a special appearance before dawn the next day.

New moons occur when the moon is between the sun and Earth. About every 29.5 days the two bodies are lined up in the sky along the same line of celestial longitude. Celestial longitude is a projection of the Earth’s longitude lines on the celestial sphere; when two bodies share the same longitude that is called a conjunction. If one draws a line from Polaris, the North Star due south toward the sun, that line also hits the moon. 

Ordinarily we see the illuminated side of the moon in the sky, but one can’t see a new moon unless it passes directly in front of the sun, creating a solar eclipse. This new moon won’t be creating any eclipses — that will have to wait for Dec. 14, and will be visible from South America, southwestern Africa and the southern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

Related: Leonid meteor shower 2020: When, where & how to see it

This new moon will occur just after the moon reaches the closest point to Earth in its orbit, called perigee. Usually the moon is a mean distance of 238,855 miles (382,500 kilometers) from the Earth, but the orbit of the moon isn’t a perfect circle. On Nov. 14 at 6:484 a.m. the moon will be only 222,350 miles (357,837 km) from Earth. 

Visible (and invisible) planets 

While the November new moon is invisible, three bodies, two of them visible to the naked eye and one not, will be in close proximity to each other Sunday night (Nov. 15). For observers in mid-northern latitudes Jupiter and Saturn will be in the southwestern sky after sunset. In New York City the sun sets at 4:37 p.m. on Nov. 15. By 6 p.m. local time, the two planets can be spotted above the south-southwest horizon. They will be among the first “stars” that become visible as the sky gets dark. Jupiter is the brighter of the two, and Saturn will be just above and to the left (east). 

Right near Jupiter will be a world that can only be seen in large telescopes: Pluto. Pluto is classified as a dwarf planet, though there are partisans who still maintain it is a planet like Jupiter and Saturn. The two worlds reach conjunction at 10:29 a.m. EST (1529 GMT). Pluto shines at magnitude 14.4, according to heavens-above.com calculations; In-the-Sky.org estimates magnitude 15; for anything smaller than about 10 inches in aperture Pluto is effectively invisible.  (Magnitude is a measure of brightness, with negative numbers denoting the brightest objects.) 

That said, with a sufficiently large telescope it’s possible to claim bragging rights for spotting Pluto, which will be at its closest 41 arcminutes south of Jupiter. 

The dwarf planet Pluto will be close to Jupiter on the evening of Nov. 14, 2020.

The dwarf planet Pluto will be close to Jupiter on the evening of Nov. 14, 2020. (Image credit: SkySafari app)

Moving inward towards the sun, Neptune and Uranus will both be above the horizon for mid-northern latitudes the night of Nov. 15. Neptune rises at 1:52 p.m. local time in New York, and at 6 p.m. the planet will be in the constellation Aquarius, about 39 degrees above the horizon. 

Neptune requires a telescope to see, as it is at magnitude 7.9, but that is within the reach of a good pair of binoculars if the sky is relatively dark and one is away from streetlights. The planet sets by 1:14 a.m. local time in New York. 

Uranus rises at 3:48 p.m. local time in New York and sets at 5:23 a.m. on Monday (Nov. 16). It’s faint, at magnitude 5.7, but with a dark sky and some luck a sharp-eyed observer might catch it. Uranus is in the constellation Aries, and one way to find it in the early evening is to look below the three stars Alpha, Beta and Gamma Arietis, the three brightest stars in the constellation. (Alpha Arietis is also known as Hamal). Uranus will be between those stars and the “tail” of the constellation Cetus, the whale. It won’t look any different from a faint star to the eye, but a pair of binoculars or a small telescope will show a distinct bluish disk. 

This sky map shows where to see the planets on the night of the new moon.

This sky map shows where to see the planets on the night of the new moon.  (Image credit: SkySafari app)

Mars is much more visible and easier to see, even from a city location. On Sunday (Nov. 15) the Red Planet rises at 2:53 p.m. local time in New York and sets in the wee hours of Nov. 16, at 3:27 a.m. local time. Located in the constellation Pisces, Mars will be the brightest object in the constellation and easily distinguished by its reddish tint. By 6 p.m. on Nov. 15 it will be about 35 degrees above the southeastern horizon. 

Mercury and Venus will be “morning stars” on Nov. 15, so if one is up very early (or stays up late) they can be seen in the east ahead of sunrise. Mercury is the harder of the two to see, as it rises after Venus, at 5:10 a.m. local time in New York — about 90 minutes before sunrise. By 6 a.m. Mercury will be about 9 degrees above the east-southeastern horizon. Shining at magnitude -0.6 it will be brighter than Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, the constellation where Mercury is located. 

See Venus and Mercury before sunrise.

See Venus and Mercury before sunrise. (Image credit: SkySafari app)

West of Mercury, and rising at 4:05 a.m. local time in New York, is Venus, which is also in Virgo. By 6 a.m. Venus will be a full 23 degrees above the eastern horizon; Venus, Spica and Mercury will form a rough right triangle with Spica at the right-angle corner.  

Stars and constellations

November is when the winter constellations of the Northern Hemisphere become more prominent in the late evening and early morning hours; it’s the time of year when Orion, Taurus and Gemini, to name three, are visible essentially all night long. By 6 p.m. in mid-northern latitudes in the Northeast one can see Capella, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga, the charioteer. Just south of Auriga is Taurus, the bull, and from a dark sky location one can see the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters making a rough triangle with Capella and Aldebaran. 

By 8 p.m. Orion’s belt is just above the horizon and one can see the three stars — Alnilam, Alnitak, and Mintaka, going from east to west. By 10 p.m. local time Gemini has risen fully above the horizon and Canis Major, the Big Dog, which contains the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, is rising. 

For Southern Hemisphere skywatchers the nights will be shorter, as November is getting into austral summer. By 9 p.m. near the northwestern horizon, one will see the constellation of Aquila, the eagle, containing the bright star Altair, setting. Looking to the south (left), you can see an “upside down” scorpion — the Scorpius constellation — moving towards the horizon as well. From Melbourne, low in the southwest, one will see Alpha Centauri and the Southern Cross constellation, the latter pointed “down” towards the horizon. 

Towards the eastern half of the sky, as one continues to turn left, the three constellations that make up the constellation of Argo, the ship — Carina, Puppis, and Vela — in the south-southeast, and the star at Orion’s “foot,” Rigel, will be just poking above the eastern horizon. Near Orion’s foot is where the constellation of Eridanus, the river begins, and from the Southern Hemisphere it goes “up” instead of down, flowing away from the horizon and ending with Achernar, one of the 10 brightest stars in the sky (not including the sun). 

Editor’s Note: If you snap an amazing night sky picture and would like to share it with Space.com’s readers, send your photos, comments, and your name and location to spacephotos@space.com.

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