Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, November 27, 1998.

The Moon waxes toward its full phase this week, passing it on the morning of Thursday, December 3. It will be just shy of full the night of Wednesday, the 2nd, just past it and beginning to wane among the stars of Taurus the night of the third. On the night of Friday, November 27, the waxing gibbous Moon passes only about a degree south of brilliant Jupiter, an approach well worth a look. Viewers in South America will actually see Jupiter pass in back of the Moon.

The two extreme planets in the Solar System go through a similar configuration with the Sun. On Tuesday, December 1, Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun and the second smallest, is in inferior conjunction, wherein it passes between us and the Sun, in line but a bit above so that it will not seem to cross in front. The day before, Pluto, the most distant and smallest planet, is also in conjunction with the Sun, but far to the other side. Pluto is the "smallest and most distant planet," of course, only if you actually want to call it such. It does not behave like the rest of the planets, its orbit elongated and oddly tilted. More, it is a gravitational captive of Neptune, orbiting three times to Neptune's two. Still more, some 60 other much smaller bodies have been found that more or less share Pluto's part of the Solar System, several of which actually share its orbit. Rather than being a "planet," Pluto seems more to be the biggest member of the "Kuiper Belt" that feeds the short-period comets into the inner Solar System, though Pluto, given its size (about half that of the lower continental US) and development is hardly a comet.

Even the full Moon cannot hide the glorious stars of winter, which make an extraordinary ring of bright constellations that include Orion, seen to the south of the full Moon, Taurus (the Bull) with reddish Aldebaran up and to the right of Orion, Auriga the Charioteer) with bright Capella above the Hunter, Gemini (the Twins) with Castor and Pollux up and to the left, Canis Minor (the Smaller dog) with Procyon to the left, and finally Canis Major (the Larger Dog), with brilliant Sirius, down and to the left. And right in the middle of it all is drab Monoceros, the Unicorn, a modern constellation designed to "fill in the blanks" so to speak. On a dark moonless night you can see the Milky Way running dimly through the set, cutting through Auriga and then to the left of both Orion and Canis Major.
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