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Lake and Sky

Photo of the Week.. Reflection from a lake doubles the beauty of the sky. Photo by Katrina Bromann.

Astronomy news for the short week starting Friday, December 27, 2002.

Happy New Year and Clear Skies to all.

Having passed its third quarter on Thursday, December 26, the Moon wanes through its crescent phase, reaching the new phase on Thursday, January 2, when it will appear gone from the skies, giving us a new Moon almost at the beginning of the year. Since the Moon's phase cycle, at 29.5 days, is a bit short of a month, the date of the new Moon will slowly slip earlier (though short February rather gets in the way), until next May, which will see two new Moons (the reverse of the so-called "blue Moon," when there are two full Moons in a month).

The waning crescent will make a nice pass only two degrees to the south of Venus the morning of Monday the 30th. Look for much fainter Mars somewhat to the west. By then the Moon will have passed to the north of the red planet, and will actually have occulted (passed in from of) it, the event visible only in the northern portions of the eastern hemisphere. At almost the same time the Moon is crossing in front of Mars, our lunar companion reaches its perigee point where it is closest to the Earth.

As a pair, Saturn and Jupiter are now near their most magnificent, Saturn rising shortly before sunset, Jupiter rising after sunset (around 7:30 PM), the two visible practically all night. As the year comes to a close, Saturn is just to the north of Zeta Tauri, which represents the southern horn of the celestial Bull, and immediately to the east of the famed Crab Nebula, a telescopic ball of gas that is the expanding remnant of the Supernova (exploding star) of the year 1054. The current view of Saturn in a telescope is outstanding, the rings wide open for observation, the planet passing about as close to overhead as possible for mid-northern latitudes. Much brighter Jupiter is two zodiacal constellations to the east, moving retrograde (as is Saturn) and in far eastern Cancer to the east of the Beehive Cluster.

Great Orion, which appears directly south around 11 PM (for those in the northern hemisphere), draws attention away from other winter constellations, some brilliant, others dim. Almost directly north of Orion, on a line through Saturn, lies bright Auriga, the Charioteer, whose luminary, Capella, is the sixth brightest star in the sky. In contrast, above (and on the average a bit east of) Auriga, is a much dimmer modern constellation, Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. New Moon is the time to see its dim stars. Follow the line farther north and you come to the pole, well marked by Polaris, the North Star, a perfect representative of the north country and of the northern winter.
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