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 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.