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The Sky This Week, 2012 January 3 - 10

Happy New Year!

New Year's Eve, 2011-12
Imaged from Morattico, Virginia, USA
with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR, 30s. @ f/5.6, ISO 1600

The Moon waxes in the evening sky this week, with the year’s first Full Moon falling on the 9th at 2:30 am Eastern Standard Time. January’s Full Moon is popularly known as the Moon After Yule, the Old Moon, or the Wolf Moon, depending on whose mythology you prefer. Look for Luna below and to the right of the Pleiades star cluster on the evening of the 4th. She passes just over five degrees north of the red-tinted star Aldebaran on the following night, then glides through the heart of the Great Winter Circle as the week progresses. Luna’s glow will interfere to some extent with the year’s first major meteor shower, the Quadrantids, which will peak on the morning of the 4th. This shower, which emanates from an area of the sky near the "handle" of the Big Dipper, can produce some 40 shooting stars per hour from a dark location, with occasional bursts of over 100 per hour around the peak time. This year the shower’s peak is expected at around 2:30 am EST, with moonset at 3:14 am. If you find yourself up well before dawn it may be worth your while to look for members of this interesting shower.

Most of you have probably noticed that the time of sunset has become noticeably later since early December. In the 5th Old Sol settles below the horizon at 5:00 pm EST here in Washington, some 14 minutes later than he did back on December 7th. However, we are currently experiencing the times of our latest sunrises, which for the next few days will hover at around 7:27 am. Overall, though, the days are getting longer, and the Sun is beginning the long climb back toward the Celestial Equator and the vernal equinox. Earth reaches perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, on the 4th at around 7:00 pm. At this time we’ll be about 91,402,000 miles (147,097,260 kilometers) away from the center of the Day-Star.

If any of you were up at midnight on New Year’s Eve and happened to cast a glance to the south (I was not among you!) you would have seen the sky’s brightest star, Sirius, crossing the meridian. The midnight culmination of Sirius puts the stars of the Great Winter Circle in their most prominent position in the sky, adding a festive touch of colored lights in the sky even as we take our artificial holiday lights down. These bright stars will remain with us until the warmer weather comes, seemingly adding a little extra light to these long winter nights.

Venus starts the new year off in the southwest at dusk. She now sets about an hour after the end of evening twilight, and will continue to gain altitude every night. Her bright glow will be the dominant feature of the evening sky for the next several months.

Jupiter is still the best planetary target for small telescopes in the evening sky. While the Moon is probably getting the most views through gift ‘scopes right now, Jupiter will be there when Luna moves to the morning sky. Old Jove is on the meridian at the end of evening twilight, so your best viewing on the giant planet can now be had at a decent hour.

Mars enters 2012 among the stars of Leo, the Lion, rising at around 10:00 pm this week. The red planet reaches zero magnitude this week, and late-night skywatchers may want to begin viewing him through the telescope. Mars will reach opposition in two months, but the planet’s disc is now large enough to see some of the larger surface features as well as the north polar icecap.

Saturn is now nearing the meridian as morning twilight begins. If you’re up at 6:00 am point the telescope his way. His rings are now tipped about 15 degrees to our line of sight, and they will continue to open during the course of the year’s upcoming opposition.

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