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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

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.

Enjoy the balance while we can

The waning crescent moon rises around 3am Friday, its upper tip pointing to the red planet Mars, only five degrees away. Both shine within the faint stars of Cancer, home to the Beehive star cluster, which appears as a smudge of light a half-dozen degrees behind moon and planet. By 5am, the moon and Mars are well placed about 30 degrees high in the east.     And then, five minutes past 5:00, our whole world changes.

Atlas’ daughters beckon

The waning gibbous moon still rises on the heels of sunset at week’s end. But by the 20th,  when Luna reaches last-quarter, it crests the horizon past midnight.     Thursday and Friday the moon keeps company with Jupiter, leading the gaseous giant the first night and trailing it the next. Both nights, the two are less than 10 degrees apart, more than close enough for your outstretched fist to block out both.

The Harvest Moon brightens more than one night

The night skies are alight with the glow of the Harvest Moon, which is technically full on the 12th but appears to shine from dusk to dawn over several nights. Every full moon rises around the time of sunset and sets the next morning around sunrise, but only for one day. However, the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to autumnal equinox, which falls on September 21, is different.

Let its waxing glow guide you

The moon reappears in our evening skies Thursday as a thin crescent low in the southwest at dusk. Lined up to the west is the twinkling blue-white star Spica and beyond that golden Saturn.