Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Rippled clouds

Photo of the Week. Striking ripples in the clouds reveal atmospheric waves.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, January 26, 2007.

We begin the week with the Moon just past its first quarter and in the waxing gibbous state, which grows until full Moon is reached on the night of Thursday, February 1, around midnight in North America, allowing you to see it full-on at its highest point in its daily arc across the sky as it anticipates Groundhog Day on Friday, February 2. On the night of full phase, Thursday the 1st, the Moon will lie just to the west of Saturn, the Moon, Saturn, and Leo's Regulus all in a fine row. Watch them as they rise in early evening.

The western evening twilight sky now holds both the inferior planets (so called because they are closer to the Sun than Earth, in old fashioned terms being "below" the Earth). Look for Venus in the southwest after sundown. Because of the planet's brilliance, you won't have to look too hard. Then before Venus gets too low, look several degrees down and a bit to the right to find Mercury, which is heading toward greatest eastern elongation on February 7. About half an hour before Venus sets (just after twilight ends around 6:45 PM), Saturn rises almost due east followed by Regulus, and is then with us all night long, crossing the meridian to the south about 1 AM. Two and a half hours later, around 3:30 AM, Jupiter then joins the ringed planet in the sky. Lording over the southeastern sky, Jupiter does not finally fade away until bright twilight takes over. Look for Antares to the southwest of the bright planet. Mars, whose rising still tracks the onset of dawn, remains tough to find.

The most northerly constellations of the Zodiac are now on fine display. Look for Taurus to cross the meridian high to the south around 8 to 9 PM, with Gemini following an hour or two later. The Summer Solstice lies between the two constellations, classically in Gemini, technically just over the artificial border (drawn up in the 1920s) into Taurus. Each has a first magnitude star to admire, Taurus holding Aldebaran (seemingly surrounded by the more distant Hyades cluster), Gemini holding Pollux. Gemini also contains the brightest second magnitude star (sextuple Castor), while Taurus has Elnath, the Bull's northern horn and number five in the second-magnitude category. Elnath is properly the Beta star, while Castor, dimmer than Pollux, was made Alpha Gem. Elnath connects Taurus with more northerly Auriga, and also carries the no- longer-used name Gamma Aurigae.
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