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Prime time for viewing winter constellations

By Larry Mahon
   Agate Ridge Observatory
   Having just passed the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, our daylight hours have begun to increase. Between Jan. 1 and the end of the month, there will an increase of 56 minutes.
   Tonight, Jan. 2, sunset is at 4:34 p.m. Looking toward the East after the sky has darkened, around 6 p.m., you will find the winter sky containing the year's grandest early-evening constellation views of the year.
   Orion, 20 degrees above the ESE horizon, is one of the easiest star patterns to recognize. Below the belt of the mighty hunter hangs the sword which contains the Great Orion Nebula (M-42). From a dark location the nebula can be seen without optical aid.
   About 25 degrees above Orion is the Hyades, which is in the constellation Taurus. Nearly 12 1/2 degrees above the Hyades is the Pleiades.
   The Andromeda Galaxy has just crossed the meridian as the great horse Pegasus dives head first towards the Western horizon along with Cygnus the swan.
   This is a great show for the first of 2013. The moon won't get too bright to view these until after the middle of the month.
   About halfway up the Southeast sky, is the planet Jupiter. It is not quite as bright as it was in December, but is still brighter than most stars at about - 2.5 magnitude. It is now between Hyades and the Pleiades.
   The planet is shrinking in size, but only slightly, and viewing will be excellent the whole month high in the sky.
   The gibbous moon will be stunningly close to Jupiter in the early evening of Jan. 21. There will be an occultation in most of South America.
   Saturn rises above the Eastern horizon at 3:33 a.m. on Jan. 2, and will rise at 12:47 a.m. by the end of the month.
   The planet is still fairly far from the earth and is not at its brightest at magnitude +0.6.
   The early morning, when the planet is highest in the sky, will be the best time to view the ring system which is now tilted 19 degrees to our line of sight. This is the largest tilt since 2006.
   Venus and Mars are slipping into the morning and evening twilight. Catching their waning views in the bright sky will be difficult as they near the sun.
   The earth comes to perihelion, its closest approach to the sun for the year, on Jan. 2. The two bodies will be 3 percent closer together than at aphelion.
   I hope everyone had a blessed Christmas and will have a great and prosperous New Year! Happy viewing.