WHAT'S UP: Outlook for winter

Jan 6, 2012

Take a look around; here are some things to see:

The brightest object in the sky will be the moon, a waxing gibbous moon about 30 degrees above the east point on the horizon. Over the next few nights, the moon will rise later and later, until it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, bright and full on Monday.

January’s full moon is called the Wolf moon.

The second brightest object in the sky — the brightest “star” in the sky — will be the planet Venus, shining brilliantly low in the southwest. Venus is about at peak brightness, so she is hard to miss. But don’t wait too long in the evening to see her because she will set a little after 8 p.m.

Through a small telescope, Venus now looks like a tiny gibbous moon. When we see Venus in a gibbous phase — more than half, but less than full — we know that Venus is far away, nearly on the opposite side of the sun as Earth.

Right now, Venus is about 110 million miles away, but getting closer every day. By the end of May, Venus will be right between Earth and the sun, as close to us as she gets. But then, Venus will not be visible because she will be hopelessly lost in the sun’s glare.

The second brightest “star” in the sky is the planet Jupiter, flying high above the horizon in the south-southeast.

Presently, the distance to Jupiter is 4.6 times the distance to the sun, putting Jupiter about 430 million miles away. At this distance, a ray of light takes about 30 minutes to fly from Jupiter to Earth. So when you look at Jupiter, you see into the past a little bit.

Over the next few weeks, Jupiter — rising earlier and earlier — will move closer and closer to the sun in the sky. Soon, he will be out of the picture until the summer when he appears again in the morning sky.

And speaking of morning, if you are an early riser, you can take a shot at seeing fleet-footed Mercury.

Actually, you don’t need to get up too early to see a dark sky in the morning, in case you haven’t noticed. The sun does not rise until 8:17 a.m.( EST), so it’s still pretty dark at 7 a.m. That is when Mercury rises on Saturday morning: about 7 (EST).

Brighter than the brightest stars in the sky, look for Mercury rising in the southeast. Mercury, like all stars in the east, rises higher and higher as time goes by; but if you wait too long to look for him, the sky will be too bright. About 7:30 a.m. is best.

Mercury moves swiftly through the sky, and he will only be visible for the next couple weeks, so now is your chance to see him.

Happy New Year and keep your eyes to the sky.

— By Doug Furton, a member of the physics faculty at GVSU and a Grand Haven resident. Send questions and suggestions to dgf@inbox.com.

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