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Volume 15, Issue 6 ~ February 8 - February 14, 2007

Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

Winter’s Bite

The cold is great for sky watching, but be prepared

Winter provides a conundrum for sky watchers. The cool, dry air offers perfect viewing conditions, with none of the distortions of summer’s humidity, which dulls distant starlight before it reaches our eyes. But unlike more active outdoor winter pastimes, like hiking or skiing, you’re standing still, and winter’s bite sets in fast.

Even so, I take a few minutes to survey the predawn sky as I retrieve my morning newspapers, and I do the same when leaving the office and once I’m home. It’s not the same as a deep-sky session, where your eyes need 10 to 15 minutes just to adjust to true darkness. But even the most dedicated may shiver at the thought of that much time standing in place when it’s in the teens outside.

Fortunately, beauty abounds overhead. It just helps to go out prepared — both clothing-wise and knowing what you’re looking to see. Also, it helps to appreciate what you get, like a waning moon shining through clouds before sunrise. Or the majestic gleam of Venus, blazing into view before the sun even sets.

The sun sets around 5:40 this week, revealing Mercury and Venus. The brightest object in the sky, Venus appears first, about two hands-widths above the horizon. Mercury is as bright as any star but is half the distance to the horizon as Venus. Within an hour of sunset, Mercury slips beneath the horizon followed 45 minutes later by Venus.

As Mercury and Venus set in the southwest, Saturn rises in the northeast. By midnight the ringed planet is directly overhead, and with sunrise, around 7:00, high in the northwest.

The waning moon doesn’t rise until midnight at week’s end and then rises more than an hour later each following night. Saturday the moon reaches last quarter, and early Monday it hovers less than 10 degrees above Jupiter.

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