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Photo of the Week. Summer sunset with "glitter path" (Bruce Kaler).

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, December 9, 2011.

We start the week, Friday, December 9, with the full Moon, the phase actually passed the morning of Saturday the 10th, when it will be eclipsed (see below). With the Sun not far to the west of the Winter Solstice in Sagittarius, this full Moon (the "Long Night Moon," the "Cold Moon") will shine in Taurus just to the west of the Summer Solstice and far to the north of the celestial equator. The rest of the week then sees the moon wane in its gibbous phase as it approaches third quarter early next week, on Saturday the 17th. By the end of our week, the near-quarter will be nearing Leo, the star Regulus, and Mars.

This month's lunar eclipse will require some dedication, as it occurs within or near dawn, with the full Moon close to setting in the northwest. The partial eclipse (with the Moon entering the dark umbral shadow of the Earth) is visible only roughly to the west of the Great Lakes, the east coast out of luck. Only westerners will see some totality and only the far west will witness all of it. The partial eclipse begins at 6:45 AM CST (5:45 AM MST, 4:45 PST), totality at 6:05 PST. The total eclipse ends at 6:57 AM PST. Hawaiians and Alaskans (plus far northwestern Canadians) will see it all, including the penumbral portions (in which some direct sunlight hits the Moon).

The two brightest planets present themselves for your admiration. Jupiter, which has been with us for some time now, crosses the meridian to the south by 8:30 PM, while in southwestern twilight Venus climbs night-to-night ever higher, now setting half an hour after dusk. While Venus rapidly disappears, Jupiter is with us until it sets around 3 AM. Beyond the two, to the east, lies Mars. Rising shortly before midnight, transiting the meridian at dawn, it is now seen to the southeast of Regulus and to the south of classical Leo. As the Earth catches up with it in orbit, the red planet is slowing down in its eastward trek against the stars. Then off further to the east, still to the northeast of Spica in Virgo, Saturn rises just before Jupiter goes down. In lesser planetary news, Uranus, closely marking the Vernal Equinox in Pisces, ends its westerly retrograde motion on Saturday the 10th.

The mornings of Tuesday the 13th and Wednesday the 14th mark the best time to watch for the Geminid meteor shower, which usually sends a meteor a minute our way. However, these leavings of what was once thought to be an asteroid, 3200 Phaeton, will be mostly obscured by a bright Moon.

As the autumn constellations, including our November Star Fomalhaut (and others that skirt the southern horizon), disappear into the west, they become replaced by the stars of winter. Look for great Orion climbing the sky in mid- evening, marked by his three-star Belt, which points down and to the left toward Sirius, the sky's brightest star.
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