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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

Two Harvard Scientists Suggest 'Oumuamua Could Be, Uh, an Alien Probe

ESO/M. Kornmesser
ESO/M. Kornmesser

An odd, cigar-shaped object has been stumping scientists ever since it zoomed into our solar system last year. Dubbed 'Oumuamua (pronounced oh-MOO-ah-MOO-ah), it was first seen through the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii in October 2017. 'Oumuamua moved at an unusually high speed and in a different kind of orbit than those of comets or asteroids, leading scientists to conclude that it didn't originate in our solar system. It was the first interstellar object to arrive from somewhere else, but its visit was brief. After being spotted over Chile and other locales, 'Oumuamua left last January, leaving lots of questions in its wake.

Now, two researchers at Harvard University bury a surprising suggestion in a new paper that analyzes the object's movement: 'Oumuamua could be an alien probe. Sure, why not?

First, astrophysicists Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb argue that 'Oumuamua is being driven through space by solar radiation pressure, which could explain its uncharacteristic speed. But for that theory to work, they calculate that the object must be unusually thin. Bialy and Loeb then analyze how such a slender object might withstand collisions with dust and gases, and the force of rotation, on its interstellar journey.

Then things get weird.

"A more exotic scenario is that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they write [PDF]. They suggest that ‘Oumuamua could be be a lightsail—an artificial object propelled by radiation pressure—which also happens to be the technology that the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, of which Loeb is the advisory committee chair, is trying to send into space. "Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” they write.

Their paper, which was not peer-reviewed, was posted on the pre-print platform arXiv.

Loeb is well known for theorizing about alien tech. He previously suggested that intense radio signals from 2007 could be the work of aliens who travel through space on solar sails. However, Loeb acknowledged that this theory deals more with possibility than probability, The Washington Post noted. “It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge,” Loeb told the paper last year.

[h/t CNN]

A Team of Young Women Wants to Send Kyrgyzstan's First Satellite to Space

José Furtado y Antel, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
José Furtado y Antel, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Kyrgyzstan is one of 123 countries that doesn't have a national space agency. That could soon change, thanks to a group of young programmers and engineers taking the matter into their own hands.

As The Next Web reports, the Kyrgyz Space Program is made up of 12 women ranging in age from 17 to 25 years old. They met in 2017, when journalist and TED fellow Bektour Iskender started a free course in his home country of Kyrgyzstan teaching young women there how to build robots and satellites.

The team has since made it its mission to build a cube satellite (CubeSat)—a smaller type of satellite that costs about $150,000 to put together. If they are able to construct the spacecraft, launch it into orbit, and send it to the International Space Station as planned, the project will mark the first time Kyrgyzstan has sent a satellite into space.

The Kyrgyz Space Program now meets twice a week in the offices of Kloop, a media outlet that's known for its support of feminist causes in a country where women still have a long way to go to reach parity. Even as more women start to get involved in Kyrgyzstan's politics, domestic violence, child marriage, and bride kidnappings are still rampant.

In order to accomplish their goal of sending a Kyrgyz satellite to orbit, the program has launched a crowdfunding campaign. Reaching the $2500-a-month marker means they can construct the CubeSat with guidance from the team who launched Lithuania's first satellite. If they reach the $10,000-a-month threshold, they will be able to send the CubeSat to the International Space Station. You can join the 120 people who've already supported their Patreon page by pledging today.

[h/t The Next Web]