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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

Only the brightest stand up against the waxing winter moon

Thursday’s first-quarter moon appears almost directly overhead with sunset around 5:35. By the time the sky has become truly dark an hour later, the moon has pivoted westward and the red star Aldebaran, of Taurus, has taken its earlier place. 

Brace yourself for the quickening

You might not know it with the cold, gray weather of late, but this week we pass the midpoint of winter, with February 5 marking the first of the year’s four cross-quarter days.

Some of the sky’s brightest sites travel this road through the heavens

The waning gibbous moon rises around 7:45pm Friday, January 21. Look a half-dozen degrees above it for the blue-white star Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion. Just as the lion is the king of beasts, Leo is the king of the constellations. In Latin, regulus means little king. The star is located right on the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun, moon, planets and the constellations of the zodiac, meaning that at times during each year it rises with the sun, giving it great powers throughout cultures of yore.

Follow the waxing moon and test your eyesight

The waxing gibbous moon brightens the night sky this week, appearing high in the southeast Thursday at sunset a little after 5:00. The next evening, and each following night, sunset finds the moon roughly a dozen degrees to the east.

Even at their best, we can never see the full face of Mercury or Venus

While winter has just begun, we’re already in the process of reclaiming daylight, and Saturday marks a milestone when the sun sets at 5:00. Over the next month, the sun sets roughly one minute later each day. That same Saturday, daybreak arrives at 7:25, but alas, through January, it will come just a few minutes earlier each week. 

While Old Sol is seven percent stronger this week, it’s unlikely you’ll need to break out the sunscreen

While we commonly mark the first week of January as the commencement of the new year, it also marks two significant milestones in the passage of the earth’s journey around the sun.

The Great Winter Circle beckons you to come outdoors

With solstice behind us, we’re in the full throes of winter. Long nights with little or no humidity make for great star-watching, even as the cold saps the desire to stay outside. As if to further lure us into the conundrum, winter skies are alight with some of the brightest stars in the heavens, contained within the Great Winter Circle and all neatly gathered in a ring surrounding the familiar figure of Orion.

Gifts to bring the heavens into focus

While the day of commercial space flight has yet to dawn, a few choice astronomy-related gifts are enough to open up the heavens for anyone on your gift list. Who knows? You could be giving someone the start of a lifelong hobby or even a career. A telescope is a grand gesture. For around $100, the Orion SpaceProbe 3 Altazimuth Reflector is a great starter scope. For under $300, the motorized, Meade ETX-80BB telescope tracks objects once programmed and comes with an interactive LCD screen that identifies what you’re looking at. 

December’s sky offers rewards for those willing to brave the elements

The sun sets this week a little before 4:45, and as the sky darkens, Jupiter appears high in the south-southeast. Aside from the moon at this time, Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the heavens until setting due west at midnight. The planet stands out all the more amid the dim water constellations Aquarius, Capricornus, Pisces and Pisces Austrinus, which holds the nearest bright star, Fomalhaut. On Monday, look for Jupiter less than seven degrees below the first-quarter moon.

It’s not for lack of light that we cannot see the new moon

  The moon wanes thru week’s end, until Sunday, December 5, when the new moon passes directly between the sun and the earth, disappearing from view. Of course, the moon is still there. However, the side facing us is cast in the darkness of its own shadow, rendering it invisible to us. But the so-called dark side of the moon faces the sun full-on, reflecting all that light away from earth. Like the tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it, the dark side of the moon is only dark in as much as we see it — or don’t.