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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

Mercury joins Mars in its last hurrah

For more than a month now, Mars has been clinging to the southwest horizon in evening twilight. The next couple weeks are your last chance to spot our red neighbor, which has been a fixture in the night sky for more than a year and a half. But he goes out in style, joined this week by much brighter Mercury in a spectacluar conjunction.

Let this bright moon lead you through the sky

Saturday marks the year’s first full moon, called the Wolf Moon by Native Americans and Europeans alike, as with January’s frigid cold and deep snows, the hungry animals came their closest to human settlements.

Jupiter’s “Three Fixed Stars”

It was 403 years ago this month, in 1610, that Galileo Galilei trained his telescope at distant Jupiter, and discovered the first four and the largest of its many moons. The first discovery came on January 7, when the Italian scientist wrote of seeing in front of Jupiter “three fixed stars, totally invisible by their smallness.” Lo and behold, when he peered at the objects the next night, he found that they had changed positions, which led to the realization that these were not stars but objects orbiting Jupiter.

Can you recognize the Quarterback, the Running Back, the Wide Receiver and the Linebacker?

As the sun sets, now after 5pm, the familiar figure or Orion straddles the east horizon. Named after the mighty Greek hunter of mythology, this figure bears an uncanny resemblance to a hero of our own modern mythos: the Quarterback. There he is, the Raven’s Joe Flacco, leaning back, his weight planted on his rear foot, his right arm cocked for a pass, his left arm extended against the onslaught of rushing defenders.

We’re speeding past our closest point to the sun

It’s counter-intuitive during these long, cold nights of winter, but early January brings the earth its closest to the sun in its annual orbit. Wednesday the second marked the actual point of perihelion, when we were two percent closer to the sun than usual. Earth’s orbit is not quite circular but rather egg-shaped, which creates a difference of a little more than 3 million miles from perihelion to aphelion — our farthest point from the sun — in July.

If the world doesn’t end, winter begins

With any luck, Friday, December 21 will not mark the end of the world, but rather the usual beginning of winter for the Northern Hemisphere. The Mayans and their vanished civilization are a true mystery, made all the more poignant by their accomplishments, building great pyramids and devising an elaborate calendar. That calendar, like those of other civilizations throughout history and around the globe, recognizes December 21 as the end of the year — and the beginning of the new.

An asteroid spawns the Geminids

Thursday’s new moon provides dark cover for this year’s Geminid meteor shower, which peaks that night and into the wee hours Friday. The Geminids are perhaps the best of the annual meteor showers, but because of December’s chill, many people haven’t truly appreciated them.

Three planets and the moon greet the dawn

The waning crescent moon rises around midnight at week’s end and is high in the south come dawn. By the weekend, it rises in the wee hours of the night. Look for it just one degree below blue-white Spica before dawn Sunday. The next morning the moon rises later and is just a few degrees away from golden Saturn. Tuesday it is a thin crescent in the east, just two degrees below Venus.

Within the great hunter’s sword is a celestial nursery

A waning gibbous moon brightens much of our nights this week, reaching last-quarter Wednesday, December 6th. But as of Thursday, the near-full moon rises amid the shadows of twilight, around 5:30pm, with golden Jupiter roughly 10 degrees higher, about the span of your closed fist at arm’s-length. Look the same distance behind the moon for the star Betelgeuse, which makes the third point with the moon and Jupiter to form a nice equilateral triangle.

November’s full moon reminds us to prepare for winter

As the evening sky darkens, Mars appears briefly, low in the southwest, a red-orange glimmer as bright as any star. This is the best view of the red planet we’ll have for many weeks.