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Photo of the Week. Panoramic sunrise.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, December 30, 2011.

The Moon celebrates the new year by passing first quarter around midnight on New Year's Eve, as 2011 gives way to 2012. It then spends the rest of the week in the waxing gibbous phase, not reaching full until next week, the night of Sunday, January 8.

Watch at the beginning of the year for the Moon to spend a trio of nights with Jupiter. The early night of Sunday, January 1, the near-quarter will appear to the right of the giant planet, while the following evening the growing gibbous will glide five degrees to the north of it. At about the same time, the Moon is going through apogee, where it is farthest from Earth. We finish the set on the night of Tuesday the 3rd with the Moon then well up and to the left of Jupiter. Early in the week, on New Year's eve the Moon passes north of Uranus, which still sits within a degree of the Vernal Equinox in Pisces.

The sky is quite littered with planets. Night to night Venus climbs ever higher, the sky's brightest planet now setting after 7:30 PM, more than an hour after the end of formal twilight. While admiring Venus, then look just east of the meridian to find the second brightest, Jupiter which, south of classical Aries, transits the southern line shortly before Venus- set. Next, wait until just after 10 PM to watch Mars rise to the south of eastern Leo, the red planet making its transit to the south around 4:30 AM. Finally, around 1:30 AM, just before Jupiter sets, up comes Saturn, rising still to the northeast of Spica in Virgo, the two making a fine sight as they cross the southeastern sky.

One of the better meteor showers of the year, the Quadrantids, will peak the morning of Wednesday the 4th, the shower named after the defunct constellation Quadrans (the Quadrant), which lies to the east of the Big Dipper's handle. You might see one a minute or more before dawn. On that evening, that of Wednesday the 4th, the Earth goes through perihelion, where it is closest to the Sun, 1.7 percent closer than average. Being the coldest time of the year, solar distance obviously has nothing to do with the seasons, which are caused by the tilt of the Earth's rotation axis against its orbital axis.

In autumn, we watched the southern constellations of Pisces Austrinus (the Southern Fish, with bright Fomalhaut), Grus (the Crane), Sculptor (the Sculptor's Studio) graze the southern horizon. Now we have one of the dimmest, Fornax (the Furnace). This almost impossible-to-find figure lies within the great eastern bend of Eridanus, the River, which has its start at Cursa, Beta Eridani, which is easily seen just to the northwest of Orion's Rigel.
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