Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, December 26, 2008.

Happy New Year to all, as 2008 turns into 2009.

The end of the year is celebrated by dark skies, as the Moon is lost within its new phase on Saturday, December 27, after which it will grow the rest of the week as a waxing crescent, first quarter not reached until Sunday, January 4. The night of Sunday the 28th offers the first view of the slim crescent in western twilight and the beginning of several nights of charming sights.

Sunday night the Moon will lie beneath Jupiter, with Mercury in between, allowing easy discovery of the innermost planet (but use binoculars). The following evenings (again in twilight), those of Monday the 29th and Tuesday the 30th, find the Moon now well up and progressively to the left of Jupiter and in between it and Venus. The highlight then comes right at the end of the year, New Year's Eve, when the Moon will be seen only three degrees to the north of Venus, the two making a classic pairing. Earlier in the day, the Moon invisibly passes north of Neptune as well.

The last day of November, Jupiter, on the way down, passed Venus on the way up. Now it's Mercury's turn. As Jupiter gets ever lower as seen on successive twilight nights, Mercury, which is climbing toward greatest eastern elongation next week, will pass it to the south by just over a degree the night of Tuesday the 30th (a good horizon required). Venus, now well separated from Jupiter, goes her own way, at the end of the year not setting until 8:30 PM. On Friday the 26th, the brilliant planet passes 1.5 degrees south of Neptune.

Two hours after Venus sets, Saturn lofts itself above the eastern horizon still (barely) within the confines of southeastern Leo. With Saturn rising ever earlier and Venus setting ever later, the two will give us a repeat performance of the Venus-Jupiter conjunction when Venus meets Saturn later in January. As a fine start to the new year, Saturn enters retrograde motion on New Year's Day, which will keep the ringed planet from crossing the boundary into Virgo until next September.

By late evening, Orion is now crossing the meridian to the south. Over his head Auriga, the Charioteer, rolls on, carrying Capella, the third brightest star in the northern hemisphere. Following well behind it, the Big Dipper of Ursa Major climbs the northeastern sky. In between the two, see if you can locate the faint stream of stars that makes the modern constellation Lynx, whose name needs no translation.
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