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Articles by J. Alex Knoll

Behind this glowing mass of cosmic gas is a stellar nursery

The waning crescent moon reaches new phase Monday, leaving our night skies free of its overpowering glow. As darkness settles and the stars come into view, the familiar outline of Orion is appears above the southeast horizon.
    Easily the most recognizable constellation, Orion has marched through the heavens and played a role in the mythology of every civilization and culture on earth.
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Regardless of the time, there’s plenty to see

The waning moon rises before midnight Thursday and Friday, with ruddy Mars just a few degrees above. They are high in the south by 4am and in the southwest at dawn.
    Monday’s last-quarter moon rises after midnight, just a couple degrees below the bright star Spica. Golden Saturn trails a few degrees to the moon’s east, with the three forming a tight triangle.
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Would you believe it’s our shortest season?

Thursday brings two celestial milestones: it marks the latest sunrise of the year and it marks perihelion, earth’s closest point to the sun.
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Feast your eyes on the heavens above

Of the naked-eye planets, Mercury is the most overlooked. That isn’t for lack of brightness, as it outshines both Mars and Saturn. Nor is it a result of distance, given that it’s closer to us than is Mars. But so near the sun, Mercury never strays far from its blinding glare.
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Five planets brighten these long nights

All the naked-eye planets decorate our night skies the next couple weeks, with the two brightest coming into view at sunset but all staggered throughout the dark hours.
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Bright lights warm dark nights

We’re still a couple weeks from winter solstice, the day with the least sunlight for us in the Northern Hemisphere. But we’re already enjoying later sunsets one day to the next. Wednesday the 7th, old Sol sunk beneath Annapolis’s southwest horizon at 37 seconds past 4:43, the earliest sunset of the year. By the solstice December 21, the sun sets more than two and a-half minutes later at 4:47:03.
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Ancient lava and endless impacts color our natural satellite

No doubt you’ve noticed the blazing light high in the east at sunset. The planet Jupiter rules over the rising stars of autumn and blazes until the wee hours before dawn. By 9pm it is a little to the south of the sky’s zenith; by 1am, Old Jove is high above the west horizon until finally setting in the northwest around 4am.
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Fill up on these heavenly views

Friday’s new moon re-emerges as a razor-thin crescent with sunset Saturday, at 4:45. Look for it low in the southwest, its bottom tip pointing to dazzling Venus just a few degrees higher. Mercury lurks a little farther from the moon but closer to the horizon and buried so deep you’ll likely need binoculars to pick it out before it sets at 5:30.
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The moon dulls this year’s Leonid meteor shower

In the dark before dawn Friday, countless pieces of cosmic debris bombard the earth as it passes through the path left by comet Tempel-Tuttle. As these bits of ice and dust collide against the planet’s atmosphere, they burst aflame. While none of these threaten the planet, few of them will be visible against the light of the first-quarter moon, which coincides with the peak of this year’s Leonid meteor shower.
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Every so often, the planets align

This week is your last chance of the year to spot all five naked-eye planets, although it’s not easy pickings against the light of Thursday’s full moon.
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