The Mental Floss Guide to the November Night Sky

November is a great month for skywatching with two dazzling meteor showers, the rare view of a tiny planet, and an eerie celestial meeting of two bright worlds. None require telescopes or sophisticated knowledge of the sky above. If you have eyes, live on Earth, and want a good dose of the cosmos, you're in for a treat. Here are a few highlights that skywatchers should be on the lookout for.

NOVEMBER 4: FIREBALL SEASON BEGINS

The Taurid meteor shower dominates the early part of November, with the northern and southern hemispheres each getting their own shows. The South Taurids peak after midnight on November 4. The North Taurids peak at the same time, but on different days: the 10th going into the 11th. The source of the Taurids is the debris field of the comet Encke. The meteor stream is massive and spread out, with the gravitational influence of Jupiter, most notably, causing a split and thus the dual peaks.

Meteors, though appearing to be massive chunks of rock coursing toward Earth, are generally dust- or sand-sized particles that burn brightly as they slam into the atmosphere. The Taurids tend to be a bit larger than most, frequently producing what are called "fireballs" (really bright meteors). While you won't see many Taurid meteors per hour (around seven or so at best), what the shower lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. If you have low levels of light pollution and your eyes are adjusted to darkness, you should be in for quite a show.

NOVEMBER 13: THE JV TEAM DEBUTS

On November 13, Venus and Jupiter will appear alarmingly close in the pre-dawn sky, practically as a single object, separated by a mere 0.3 degrees. But don't worry, the planets aren't colliding. Rather, it's a trick of perspective. Venus is about the size of Earth (it is, in many ways, our evil twin), and is one planet closer to the Sun than Earth in its orbit. It is a stunning, unblinking dot in the sky. Jupiter, meanwhile, is about five times farther from the Sun than is the Earth, but what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in size: you could fit about 1300 Earths inside of it. What makes their conjunction so fun is that you don't have to know much about space or astronomy to see the magic of orbital mechanics. How to see it: One hour before sunrise, look east. The two bright, eerily adjacent worlds will appear on the horizon. As the sun rises over the next hour, it will wash them out, so have coffee with you and enjoy the moment.

NOVEMBER 17: THE BEST METEOR SHOWER OF THE YEAR PEAKS

After midnight on November 17, the Leonids meteor shower will peak, and here is why you need to see it. 1. It coincides with a new moon, which means there will be no moonlight to wash out the sky. 2. This shower has a history of delivering the goods, some years bringing as many as 1000 meteors per minute. Note: This is not one of those years! Expect between 10 and 20 per hour, which still isn't bad when the sky is inky black, a celestial canvas waiting for brushes of light. (Incidentally, while the Taurid meteors collide with Earth's atmosphere at a snail's pace—a mere 65,000 miles per hour—the Leonids do not play around. They're smashing into us at a blistering 160,000 miles per hour.) 3. The 17th is a Friday and you can sleep late the next morning, so what are you going to do: Binge-watch somebody else's adventure on Netflix, or go live your own?

NOVEMBER 24: MERCURY SHINES AT ITS BIGGEST AND BRIGHTEST

Mercury will reach greatest eastern elongation, meaning it will be as far from the Sun as it can get for the rest of the year, relative to the Earth, and will thus be as big and bright as it's going to get in the sky. If you want to see the elusive little planet, this is your big chance. Just before sunset, look west. You will most easily see Saturn not too far above the horizon. As the minutes move forward and the sky slowly darkens, you'll notice another bright spot below Saturn. That's Mercury. Enjoy it while you can, because you'll only have about 30 minutes from its first appearance before it sinks below the horizon and thus falls out of view.

If bad weather ruins any of your November viewings, do not fret. Next month we've got meteor showers, pagan rituals, and supermoons to help bid 2017 adieu.

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ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
Look Closely—Every Point of Light in This Image Is a Galaxy
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Even if you stare closely at this seemingly grainy image, you might not be able to tell there’s anything to it besides visual noise. But it's not static—it's a sliver of the distant universe, and every little pinprick of light is a galaxy.

As Gizmodo reports, the image was produced by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, a space-based infrared telescope that was launched into orbit in 2009 and was decommissioned in 2013. Created by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) and Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS), it looks out from our galaxy toward the North Galactic Pole, a point that lies perpendicular to the Milky Way's spiral near the constellation Coma Berenices.

A close-up of a view of distant galaxies taken by the Herschel Space Observatory
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Each point of light comes from the heat of dust grains between different stars in a galaxy. These areas of dust gave off this radiation billions of years before reaching Herschel. Around 1000 of those pins of light belong to galaxies in the Coma Cluster (named for Coma Berenices), one of the densest clusters of galaxies in the known universe.

The longer you look at it, the smaller you’ll feel.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

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