Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Skylights featured nine times on Earth Science Picture of the Day: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 -- Full List Restored!

Earth's shadow

Photo of the Week. The Earth's shadow, cast on the atmosphere after sunset, rises over the sea.

Astronomy news for the two weeks starting Friday, January 1, 2016.

The next skylights will appear January 15, 2016. Best wishes for the new year.

The last time Skylights kicked off the New Year was in 2010. And we begin it with the third quarter Moon, which rises New Year's night almost right on the phase in North America. It then fades as a waning crescent until it disappears at new Moon on Saturday, January 9. Your last easy view of it will be the morning of Friday the 8th. The Moon will reappear as a slim waxing crescent the evening of Monday the 11th, which terminates at first quarter on Saturday the 16th. The morning of Sunday the 3rd finds the Moon just west of Mars; by the following morning the Moon will be well east of the red planet. Then the morning of Wednesday the 6th look for the Moon to stand northwest of Venus and Saturn. The following morning it will be to the northeast of the pair.

With Venus rising later each morning and Saturn rising earlier, the two approach each other. The morning of Saturday the 9th, Venus will appear under half degree from fainter Saturn, closest passage taking place with the pair out of sight prior to their rising shortly before 5 AM, after which they will separate from their position north of the star Antares. Well to the west of the two, Mars now rises around 1:30 AM to the east of Spica in Virgo. Rising before 10:30 PM, Jupiter dominates the late evening and transits the meridian to the south about as Venus rises.

The Moon passes apogee, where it is farthest from Earth, on Saturday the 2nd. On the same date, around 5PM CST the Earth passes perihelion, where it is closest to the Sun, 91.404 million miles (147.1 million kilometers), less than two percent closer than average. Since we are closest to the solar furnace in northern-hemisphere winter, the Sun's distance obviously has little to do with the seasons, which are produced by the 23.4 degree tilt of the rotation axis relative to the orbital perpendicular. Because of the tilt and the Earth's orbital eccentricity, latest sunrise is not at the solstice passage but on Tuesday the 5th. For the same reasons, earliest sunset was on December 8; already the evenings are notably lighter. The Moon then passes perigee, when it is closest to Earth (about five percent closer than average), on Thursday the 14th.

At opposite ends of the solar system, Mercury passes inferior conjunction with the Sun (more or less between us and the Sun)on Thursday the 14th, while Pluto goes through solar conjunction on Tuesday the 5th, In between, Jupiter enters Retrograde, westerly motion against the stars, on Friday the 8th.

If you can bear the cold, the Quadrantids, one of the best meteor showers of the year, one that can deliver more than 100 meteors per hour, is at its best the morning of Monday, January 4. The Moon cooperates by being in the waning crescent phase and not all that bright. Named after the defunct constellation Quadrans, the Quadrant (not far off the handle of the Big Dipper), the shower's origin is uncertain.

With the Sun not far to the east of the winter solstice, the traditional keeper of the summer solstice, Gemini, rides high, Taurus with its Hyades and Pleiades clusters to the west, dim Cancer (recognizable in a dark sky by its central "Beehive" cluster) to the east. This is a near-perfect time for Orion, recognizable by his three- star Belt, with the brightest star of the sky, Sirius, shining to the southeast of him.
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