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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

Gifts to bring the heavens into focus

While the day of commercial space flight has yet to dawn, a few choice astronomy-related gifts are enough to open up the heavens for anyone on your gift list. Who knows? You could be giving someone the start of a lifelong hobby or even a career. A telescope is a grand gesture. For around $100, the Orion SpaceProbe 3 Altazimuth Reflector is a great starter scope. For under $300, the motorized, Meade ETX-80BB telescope tracks objects once programmed and comes with an interactive LCD screen that identifies what you’re looking at. 

December’s sky offers rewards for those willing to brave the elements

The sun sets this week a little before 4:45, and as the sky darkens, Jupiter appears high in the south-southeast. Aside from the moon at this time, Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the heavens until setting due west at midnight. The planet stands out all the more amid the dim water constellations Aquarius, Capricornus, Pisces and Pisces Austrinus, which holds the nearest bright star, Fomalhaut. On Monday, look for Jupiter less than seven degrees below the first-quarter moon.

It’s not for lack of light that we cannot see the new moon

  The moon wanes thru week’s end, until Sunday, December 5, when the new moon passes directly between the sun and the earth, disappearing from view. Of course, the moon is still there. However, the side facing us is cast in the darkness of its own shadow, rendering it invisible to us. But the so-called dark side of the moon faces the sun full-on, reflecting all that light away from earth. Like the tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it, the dark side of the moon is only dark in as much as we see it — or don’t.

See if you can spot the five naked-eye planets

Sunset reveals Jupiter high in the south, shining far brighter than any other object. The king of planets is truly massive — more than twice as large as all the other planets combined. That’s a lot of reflective surface, which makes up for its distance from the sun. While more than three times as far from the sun as its inner neighbor Mars, Jupiter is second in brightness only to Venus. And despite its huge girth, Jupiter spins faster than any other planet, so that one Jovian day is less than 10 Earth hours.

The brightest stars of two seasons outshine the full moon’s glare

Sunday’s full moon shines amid the stars of Taurus the bull. Ten degrees east of the moon you’ll find the red-giant Aldebaran. Half that distance to the moon’s west look for a small, fuzzy patch of light. So close to the moon’s glare, you may need binoculars to discern the stars of the Pleiades cluster. While this full moon looks much like any other, it has the distinction of being a true blue moon. You may think of a blue moon as the second in a single month, and that’s the colloquial definition.

Jupiter and Venus bookend the edges of darkness

Darkness comes early, as we settle into Standard Time, with the sun setting around 4:55 at week’s end. We passed the mid-point of autumn early this month, and now we shed daylight fast in the march toward winter solstice. Every day until then, we shed almost a minute of sunlight each afternoon, and in the morning, when the sun rises around 6:45 at week’s end, we lose more than a minute each day.

The crescent moon peeks from behind the waning sun’s glare

The waning crescent moon makes a brief appearance low in the southeast early Friday morning in the half-hour leading to sunrise, at 7:37. A few degrees higher shines the unmistakable light of Venus, just returned to view after slipping from evening to pre-dawn skies. Ten degrees higher still shines the blue-white star Spica, and above that is Saturn, as bright as any star.

Autumn’s full moons help dispel the impending darkness

Sunset Friday the 22nd, at 6:17, reveals the full Hunter’s Moon rising in the east. Like all full moons, this one rises with sunset and sets with sunrise, around 7:25 this week. The full moon is always juxtaposed to the sun with earth right in the middle. As sunlight washes over the other side of the world, it spills around the planet, striking the face of the moon head-on. 

From Zeus’ paramour to Arthur’s kingdom

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter on the 14th, appearing due south as the sun sets, well before 6:30 this week, and setting around midnight. Each night the moon appears 15 degrees farther east at sunset, and each evening it sets almost an hour later. The night of the 19th, the gibbous moon passes six degrees north of brilliant Jupiter.  Jupiter, brighter than any star, beckons low in the east-southeast as darkness settles. Look for him high in the south around midnight and edging westward hour by hour before setting around 4am. 

In the case of brightness, less is more