Volume 13, Issue 52 ~ December 29, 2005 - January 4, 2006

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Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

The Rhythms of the Heavens

As the year that was flows into the year ahead, our planet Earth begins another 365-day cycle around the sun, sure as clockwork. The other planets within our solar system and the stars and constellations, too, follow their own predictable rhythms. Within these confines, what was will be again; The constellations of winter will give way to those of spring and then summer and then fall and then again winter.

For sky watchers, the reliability of these sights is like a longtime friend you know you’ll see again. But each year, other variables play a role, providing spectacular showings of meteor showers with an absent moon and clear skies — and all too often the opposite — and tight conjunctions of planets or solar and lunar eclipses.

Then there are celestial oddities, like 2005’s passing of Comet Machholz, C/2004 Q2, visible to the naked eye early last year. And who has forgotten the appearance 10 years ago of Comet Hyutake or Comet Shoemaker Levy 9, which then smashed into Jupiter?

The rhythms and the surprises of the heavens, as through millennia past, will keep us looking to the sky in the year to come.

With winter’s short, cold days, it might surprise you that earth reaches perihelion — its closest point to the sun — on January 4. At 92.1 million miles distant, it’s not much difference from the 95.7 million miles separating us from the sun at aphelion. A few million miles isn’t enough to cause our changing seasons; it’s earth’s 231⁄2-degree tilt that faces us toward or away from the sun and causes the shift in daylight and warmth.

The Quadrantid meteor shower, before dawn January 4, combines with an early waxing moon and could produce from 50 to 120 meteors per hour high in the sky. Unlike other meteor showers, which emanate from a comet’s tail, the Quadrantids are the offspring of an asteroid, 2003 EH1.

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