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


Photo of the Week. Tranquility. (See the water's beauty at full resolution.)

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, December 12, 2008.

Specific "phases of the moment" still bracket the week. We start it off on Friday, December 12, with the Moon at full phase, rising near sunset, setting near sunrise. It then wanes through the gibbous phase until it hits third quarter the morning of Friday the 19th with the Moon about crossing the meridian to the south as seen from North America. If you are on the coast, watch for especially high tides early in the week, as the Moon will also be near perigee, where it is closest to the Earth. As it wanes, our Moon visits Saturn, crossing well to the south of it the night of Thursday the 18th. With the Sun close to the Winter Solstice in Sagittarius, this full Moon will be the highest of the year.

Though waning, the Moon will still be bright enough to drain much of the charm out of one of the best meteor showers of the year, the Geminids. A product of dead Comet Phaeton (once thought to be an asteroid until its orbit was connected to the shower), the meteors seem to come from the constellation Gemini, this "radiant" a product of the meteoroids' motions combined with the movement of Earth through the swarm. The shower peaks the night of Saturday the 13th (and the morning of Sunday the 14th). The shower normally produces well over a meteor per minute. Even with Moonlight, you might still see some of the brighter ones.

Though the great conjunction is over, Venus and Jupiter still dominate southwestern twilight skies, with brilliant Venus now notably to the east of Jupiter, making planetary motion really obvious. Jupiter, however, is slowly disappearing, now setting about an hour after the end of twilight, while Venus, climbing rapidly northeasterly through the Zodiac, does not set until near 8 PM. Moving into evening, Saturn now rises east of Regulus by 11:30 PM, almost exactly as Uranus sets, the two near opposition with each other.

The late autumn stars are in full evening glory. Look for Andromeda high overhead as seen from northern climes to the northeast of the Great Square of Pegasus. To the northwest of the sweeps of stars that make Andromeda, find the fuzzy Andromeda Nebula, Messier 31, a nearby galaxy more than two million light years away that is the most distant thing to be seen with the naked eye. To the southeast of Andromeda lies the simple constellation of Triangulum, and farther down, the first constellation of the classical Zodiac, Aries, the Ram. If you are an early riser, the Big Dipper is nearly overhead just before dawn.
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