Friday, January 27, 2006

January 4, 2001

A little waltz music, please! Just in time for 2001, Space Station Alpha becomes visible in the evening and predawn skies.

This is the largest and brightest human-made object in space, and is outshone only by the moon and Venus among natural nighttime objects. At an altitude of 250 miles, its giant energy-generating solar panels reflect sunlight that is streaming up from just below the horizon.

Meanwhile, Venus is so bright this winter that it can be seen during daylight, so that spot in your eye might just be a planet. After dusk there’s no missing it as it blazes in the southwest.

Complementing Venus in the southeast are bright Jupiter and Saturn. This evening all three planets form an arc that spans exactly 90 degrees, or one half of the sky.

Just below Jupiter is the bright reddish star Aldebaran. To its lower left in turn is the bright reddish star Betelgeuse, the eastward shoulder of the great winter constellation of Orion.

Today the Earth is at its closest approach to the Sun of the whole year. So why is it winter for us? For the same reason that it’s summer in Brazil: The tilt of the Earth on its axis.

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