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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Blue Orion

Photo of the Week.. Blue Orion rises in evening twilight.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, December 28, 2001.

Phone: (217) 333-8789
Prepared by Jim Kaler.

The waning days of 2001 see the Moon pass through its full phase, the last full Moon of the year to take place at 4:40 AM CST (2:40 PST, 5:40 EST) the morning of Sunday, December 30. At that time, the Moon will be in a penumbral eclipse, that is, in the partial shadow of the Earth. There is little point in watching, as penumbral eclipses are barely if at all sensible to the eye. More interesting, since the Sun just passed its most southerly point on the ecliptic, the winter solstice in Sagittarius, the Moon will be near its most northerly point in Gemini. Those in mid-northern latitudes will therefore witness the highest full Moon of the year, and since there will be an eclipse (of sorts), the Moon will be almost smack on the ecliptic itself. As the near-full Moon traverses the sky the night of Saturday the 29th, it will appear just to the east of Jupiter (also in Gemini), the following night to the west of the giant planet.

The new year is celebrated by Jupiter's passage through its opposition with the Sun, which will take place New Year's Eve, the night of Monday, December 31. Instead of partying, go outside and admire the brilliant planet. That night, Jupiter will rise at sunset, set at sunrise, and cross the meridian to the south at midnight. From here on out, until Jupiter disappears into twilight next July, it will already have risen by sunset. While looking at Jupiter, you can also of course watch for Saturn, in Taurus to the east of Jupiter, as well as Mars (in Pisces), which still lies in the early-evening southwest, and which will also be with us until next July.

Planet Earth is featured this week as well, as it too helps celebrate the new year by passing through perihelion, where it is closest to the Sun, on Wednesday January 2, its distance from the Sun a mere 147,098,058 kilometers (91,402,496 miles), a bit under 2 percent less than average. Obviously, the distance between the Earth and Sun has nothing to do with the seasons, as we in the northern hemisphere are in the dead of winter (the seasons produced entirely by the tilt of the Earth's axis).

At the end of twilight, the stars of autumn are at their highest pitch, and as the evening progresses are exchanged for those of winter. Look particularly for the "W" of Cassiopeia, which for those in mid-northern latitudes, is nearly overhead. Those in the far south, however, know of it only by reputation or travel. Just as people in mid-northern latitudes cannot see the Southern Cross, those south of around 35 degrees south latitude, which includes southern South America, southern Australia, and New Zealand, cannot see the ancient celestial Queen, who never rises for them.
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