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.

July Is the Best Time to See Saturn and Its Rings This Year

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn is the second-biggest planet in our solar system, boasting 95 times the mass of Earth. Even though it's located hundreds of millions of miles away, Saturn is still clearly visible in the night sky during certain times of the year. As EarthSky reports, July is the best month to spot the gas giant, and if you're using a telescope, you may even see its rings and its largest moon.

On July 9, 2019, Saturn entered something called opposition with Earth. This occurs when our planet falls directly in line between Saturn and the Sun. When it's in opposition, Saturn is at its closest point to Earth in its orbit (about 746 million miles away). Due to its position in relation to our planet and the Sun, Saturn also appears especially clear and bright.

Just because opposition has passed doesn't mean your chance to spot Saturn from your backyard is over. The planet may no longer be at peak visibility, but during the weeks and even months surrounding opposition, Saturn will still be close to Earth and easily observable with the naked eye. Without any special tools, Saturn will appear as a bright golden star. If you're using a telescope, look for the planet's iconic rings. Titan, the largest of its 62 moons, may also be visible through a telescope.

To catch a prime view of Saturn, look up on a clear night any time from now through September 2019. At sunset, look above the southeastern sky for white-yellow star. Saturn will appear in the southern part of the sky in the middle of the night and disappear over the northwest horizon at sunrise. Saturn's opposition comes just one month after Jupiter's, which means the solar system's largest planet also looks particularly big and bright this time of year.

[h/t EarthSky]

8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, on July 24, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. In honor of its 50th anniversary, here are some facts about the stellar track.

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

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