Friday, January 27, 2006

November 2, 2000

Gone are the planet-bereft skies of last summer. The three brightest planets -- Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn -- are now on brilliant display. The first is setting in the west after dusk while the two latter are simultaneously rising in the east.

Venus has no rival, so there's no missing it. One hour after sunset on the 19th, it will form a beautiful pair with the waxing crescent moon.

Jupiter similarly dominates its corner of the sky, shining to the lower left of Saturn as night falls. In their vicinity are two outstanding star clusters, the lovely, glittering Pleiades to the upper left, and the ">" (or lying-down "V") of the Hyades to the lower right, the latter highlighted by the bright reddish star Aldebaran. Together these planets and clusters form an enchanting, bejeweled cat's cradle, changing shape with the passage of the cold, dark months.

If we consider not the spectacle of the night sky but its wonder, there is no more remarkable object in view, now or ever, than a tiny smudge that is optimally placed at the very top of the sky at 9 p.m. later this month: the Great Andromeda Galaxy. At 2.3 million light-years' distance, it is the furthest object visible to the naked eye.

The Leonid meteor shower will return on the mornings of the 17th and 18th. Expect about one meteor per minute at
around 3 a.m.

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