Illuminating the Long Night

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.

But there are plenty of lights to dispel this gloom. Jupiter, king of the planets, leads the way, appearing as a beacon glowing high in the southeast at sunset. Around 8:30pm, Jupiter is due south and at its highest above the horizon. By 2am it winks from view beneath the west horizon. Jupiter shines in the company of the waxing moon, which reaches first-quarter Saturday. Monday and Tuesday the two are within 10 degrees of one another, close enough to fit within the space of your fist held at arm’s length.

An hour before dawn, Venus blazes in the east, heralding the coming sun. If the skies are clear, there should be no mistaking Venus, which is exponentially brighter than any celestial object other than the sun and moon. Far above is blue-white Spica and higher still Saturn. As daybreak approaches, these lightweights fade from view, while the morning star shines on through the glow of dawn.

With temperatures of 900 degrees, Venus is one of the hottest places in our solar system, a result of its dense, atmosphere, which retains 90 percent of the sun’s heat. Away from the planet, this miles-deep cloud cover acts like a giant mirror, reflecting back 90 percent of the light that strikes it.

The darkness between Wednesday and Thursday marks the peak of this year’s Leonid meteor shower. Conditions allowing, the best showing is before dawn, with 10 to 15 meteors an hour.