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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

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.

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.

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.     Sunset Sunday reveals the waxing moon a little higher above the southwest horizon, now with its curved back to Venus, just a half-dozen

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.

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.

While we’re seeing less of the sun, the nights are lighting up

The sun sets in the west-southwest just after 6:00 at week’s end and more than a minute earlier each day thereafter for the next couple weeks. It’s no better in the morning, with sunrise at 7:36 Friday but more than a minute later each following day. So while Sunday’s return to Standard Time may give us back the hour of morning sleep it stole from us last April, setting our clocks back that one hour cannot stave our actual loss of daylight.

You don’t need to wait until 2062

Who hasn’t heard of Halley’s Comet, that most famous celestial interloper that passes earth every 76 years? While we’re not due for another visit from the comet until 2062, we’re reminded of it each year around this time.

Start looking for Venus and Mars

The recent Hunter’s Moon still dominates the night sky when it rises after sunset Thursday, with the piercing light of Jupiter to the moon’s right. While the waning moon rises later through the week, Jupiter rises earlier until reaching opposition October 28. At that point, the gaseous giant will be directly opposite the sun, rising in our east at sunset, shining at the sky’s apex around midnight and setting in the west at sunrise.

It’s a mess of a place up there

Like calendar pages strewn across an untidy desk, the stars of summer and even spring linger after sunset, with their autumn and winter counterparts commanding the heavens before dawn.

Sometimes you have to hunt for the night’s best sights

Just a week past equinox, the balance between day and night is shifting fast, with a loss of nearly 20 minutes of sunshine already.     The sun sets this week before 6:50, with Saturn and Venus in its wake tight against the horizon, although you may need binoculars to find them. At week’s end, the two are just a couple degrees apart, but Saturn is on its way out of our evening skies, while Venus in its retrograde orbit climbs a bit higher night by night.