Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Skylights featured three times on Earth Science Picture of the Day: 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 .

Country Sky

Photo of the Week.. Telephone wires set against a wide country sky help close the distances between us.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, January 30, 2004.

Happy Birthday to the Star of the Week. Born January 29, 1998 with Aldebaran, and now six years old, the growing archive contains descriptions of 311 stars.

This week is the near-exclusive domain of the waxing gibbous Moon. First quarter took place the night of Wednesday, January 28th, while full will not be accomplished until the night of Thursday, February 5, the Moon rising just short of full, the phase actually reached in the morning hours of Friday the 6th. Still in the depth of winter, this full Moon is variously called the "Snow Moon," the "Hunger Moon," or "Wolf Moon." No eclipse here, as the full Moon passes well to the north of the Earth's shadow. We end the month with the Moon at its apogee , where it is farthest from the Earth, 5.5 percent farther than average, at a distance of 252,000 miles, 406,000 kilometers. The night of Monday, February 2, our companion will pass to the north of Saturn, which lies in southern Gemini only a few degrees to the east of the Summer Solstice. The same day, Neptune passes conjunction with the Sun.

Venus becomes ever more luminous and prominent in the twilight southwestern sky. It will continue to brighten as it approaches the Earth, not reaching maximum brightness until the beginning of May. Half an hour before Venus sets, Jupiter begins to grace the eastern horizon. With Mars to the southwest and Saturn high to the northeast, between roughly 8 and 8:30 PM, all the ancient planets (those known since ancient times) but Mercury will be in the sky at the same time.

The above two conjunctions celebrate an astronomical holiday of sorts, the traditional splitting of the beginning of winter and that of spring, reminding us that new grass and blossoms are not far off. One of the four "cross-quarter days," February 2 is called "Candlemas" in England and "Groundhog Day" in America. If the groundhog sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter, while if he does not, there will be 42 days. The other major cross quarter days are May Day eve, half way between the solar Vernal Equinox and Summer Solstice passages, and Halloween, which announces the coming of winter.

Magnificent Orion now dominates the starry sky, remaining prominent even through bright moonlight. Within the constellation are a variety of subgroups, "asterisms," informal constellations. Of these, the three star "Belt" is by far the most notable, followed by the Sword, which hangs below it. To the west is a lesser known group, a vertical string of stars, six of which are all named "Pi Orionis" (from top to bottom Pi-1 through Pi-6), which make the Hunter's "lion's skin" or sleeve.
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