Morning Lights

StarDate: December 12, 2009

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For most of us, an hour before sunrise isn't prime skywatching time -- especially on a weekend. But if you happen to be up at that time tomorrow, you'll be rewarded with a bright lineup of astronomical objects near and far.

The most prominent member of the group -- and the one on the near end of the scale -- is the crescent Moon, which is low in the southeast. Sunlight illuminates only a sliver of the hemisphere that faces our way right now -- direct sunlight, that is. Sunlight reflected off of Earth lights up the nighttime portion of the disk, giving it a ghostly gray glow.

Four bright pinpoints extend to the upper right of the Moon like bulbs on a strand of Christmas lights: Spica, Saturn, Regulus, and Mars.

Mars, which is high in the southwest, is the brightest of the bunch. In fact, next month it'll reach its maximum brightness for the next two years. It outshines all but a handful of other planets and stars, so it really stands out.

Mars is also the most colorful of the four, shining bright orange. Saturn is pale yellow, Regulus is white, and Spica shows a tiny hint of blue.

Mars and Saturn are planets in our own solar system, so in astronomical terms they're close neighbors. But Regulus and Spica are stars, so they're many light-years away. Spica is the more distant of the two, at about 250 light-years.

So if you have the chance, enjoy this beautiful lineup just before the break of a new day.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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