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Photo of the Week. Spring really is coming.

Astronomy news for the THREE WEEK period starting Friday, January 13, 2012.

Our triple week begins with the Moon in its late waning gibbous phase, our companion then passing third quarter the morning of Monday, January 16 well after Moonrise, allowing you to see the phase to perfection. It then goes to the waning crescent, which diminishes in the morning sky until our Moon goes through new on Monday the 23rd, whence it switches to the evening waxing crescent, which holds forth, growing, until it hits first quarter the night of Monday the 30th. Our triplet then ends with a bit of the waxing gibbous.

Many are the pairings. The night of Friday the 13th the Moon passes 9 degrees south of Mars, the rather large separation due to the tilts of the two orbits. Then the night of Sunday the 15th (the morning of the 16th, when it goes through third quarter), the Moon will lie to the southwest of Saturn, the following night to the southeast. Don't confuse Saturn with Spica, which sits to the southwest of the planet. Then watch the morning of Thursday the 19th to see the moon glide north of Antares in Scorpius. Switching to the evening sky, the Moon will make nice pairings with Venus, appearing down and to the right of the planet the night of Wednesday the 25th, then up and a bit to the right the following evening. The fattening crescent then takes on Jupiter, lying to the right of the giant planet the night of Sunday the 29th then up and to the left the following night. Two days later, on the night of Wednesday, February 1, the just-past-quarter will sit right between the Pleiades and Hyades of Taurus. Finally, if anyone actually cares, the Moon respectively goes by Neptune and Uranus on Wednesday the 25th and Friday the 27th. Really finally, our period is long enough to span perigee (Moon closest to Earth) on Tuesday the 17th and apogee (farthest) on Monday the 30th.

Two great lights dominate the evening sky. Venus glows brilliantly and unmistakably in the west-southwest, not setting until after 8 PM, well after the end of twilight. Then swing higher to the south to see great Jupiter, which is with us until after midnight. On the other side of the sky, Mars rises shortly after Venus sets, still stuck in southeastern Leo. It's now moving slowly, as it has been near the point where it reverses direction as a result of the Earth catching up with it. Then on Tuesday the 24th, it actually does, when it begins its retrograde motion (westerly against the stars). Look to see it transit the meridian to the south between 3 and 4 AM. To complete the planetary sky, Saturn then rises, paired with Spica (the star to the southwest), not long after midnight, only a half-hour before Jupiter sets. It disappears into dawn's light near the time it transits the merdian. Altogether, Leo's Regulus, Mars, Spica, and Saturn make a lovely sight in the pre-dawn sky.

Don't forget to celebrate the astronomical holiday that lies midway between the first days of winter and spring: Groundhog Day on Thursday, February 2. one of the four similar "cross-quarter" days.

As Venus and Jupiter rule the planetary sky, so great Orion (seen to the south in mid evening) lords the winter constellations, benignly leading us to others of the "Winter Six": Auriga the Charioteer directly above him, Gemini and Taurus respectively up and to the left and right, then his Hunting Dogs Canis Minor and Canis Major directly to the left and down and to the left, the latter shining with Sirius. To the southwest of the Hunter runs Eridanus, the celestial River.
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