Friday, January 27, 2006

December 2, 1999

How many dippers can you see in the sky? Most people know the Big Dipper, which is currently low in the north after dark. Then there's the dim Little Dipper, hanging like a pendant from Polaris, the North Star.

But on December evenings you can also see a littler dipper and a bigger dipper!

To find them, turn around and face south. Dominating the stars will be the planet Jupiter, with Saturn a handspan to its left. Now scan further to the left until you notice a glowing patch a little higher in the sky. That's the Pleiades.

If you look closely, you will see their glow resolve into a cluster of six stars, even though they are named after the Seven Sisters of antiquity. And even though we might also expect a dipper to contain seven stars, this cluster does in fact look like a tiny dipper.

Now look to the upper right of Jupiter, where you will see the Great Square of Pegasus, or the "cup" of the biggest dipper of all. These four stars are all a handspan apart. The "handle" is a line from the upper left star to three more equally bright and equally separated stars bridging overhead, traversing the constellation Andromeda and ending in Perseus.

Tomorrow morning the waning crescent Moon hovers above blazing Venus. Just before dawn on the 5th locate elusive Mercury directly below an even thinner crescent. Finally, find reddish Mars immediately to the right of the waxing crescent on the evening of December 12.

By the 22nd the Moon is full; furthermore, by chance, the Moon will be at its closest approach to Earth and this is also the winter solstice. Therefore Diana will dazzle us with her especial brilliance during the longest night of the year.

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