Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Skylights featured five times on Earth Science Picture of the Day:
1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5


Photo of the Week. The Moon, its nighttime side awash with light reflected from the Earth, visits the red supergiant Antares during the morning of January 26, 2006.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, February 3, 2006.

The Moon begins our week as a waxing crescent just barely short of first quarter, that phase reached the night of Saturday, February 4th, about the time of Moonset in North America. Curiously, though exactly the same shape as third quarter, and covering the same angular area of the sky, the first quarter is notably brighter than the third because of the third's greater coverage of dark rock that fills the "maria," the lava-coated impact basins that make the "man in the Moon" and other fanciful figures. The rest of the week sees it waxing in the gibbous phase towards next week's full.

The night of Sunday the 5th finds the Moon in a marvelous setting well worth braving winter's cold, as it passes just to the north of Mars (which transits the meridian high to the south as twilight draws to a close), with the Pleiades of Taurus just to the east of the pairing.

Saturn , having passed opposition with the Sun, is now already up in the east (in Cancer) at sundown, and is with us pretty much all night, transiting just before midnight. As it descends in the west, watch for the rising of bright Jupiter (in Libra) around 1 AM. For half an hour, three bright planets are visible until Mars finally sets. Wait then until 5 AM, when Venus rises to bring the count back to three. Climbing ever higher in the morning sky, Venus ceases its retrograde motion (westerly against the background stars) on Friday the 3rd, and begins to move easterly again (though still separating from the Sun). It will be with us as the "morning star" much of the year, not disappearing into twilight until late September or so. At the other end of the scale, for that matter of the Solar System, Neptune invisibly passes conjunction with the Sun on Monday, February 6.

A belated happy groundhog day (Feb. 2), an actual astronomical holiday (a "cross-quarter day") that splits the difference between the first day of winter and that of spring.

The constellations, both ancient and modern (the latter created mostly between the years 1600 and 1800), are rife with animals and artifacts. The Zodiac is all animalistic (Libra, the Scales, in more ancient times being the claws of Scorpius). At 10 PM, the most northerly of them, Gemini (the Twins, with bright Castor and Pollux) crosses high to the south. To the west are Taurus (the Bull) and Aries (the Ram), while to the east are Cancer (the Crab) and Leo (the Lion). The arts are not so well represented. In the north we find ancient Lyra, the Lyre, while the southern hemisphere holds modern Sculptor (the Sculptor's Studio) seen to the east of the star Fomalhaut, Pictor (the Easel), and stretching things a bit, Caelum (the Engraving Tool), the latter two far south of Orion.

The Orionid meteor shower, believed to be one of the two spawns of Halley's Comet (the other May's Eta Aquarids), runs for several days, peaking on the morning of Friday the 21st. In a dark sky, the shower is quite good (perhaps 20 a minute), but a rather bright Moon will hamper much of the show.

The stars of the Andromeda myth are now beautifully on stage. Look especially for the Great Square of Pegasus high to the east at nightfall, appearing more like a giant diamond. Stretching out to the northeast are the streams of bright stars that make the maiden Andromeda herself, the constellation pointing the way to her rescuer Perseus, whose star streams stem from a prominent cluster at the center. Farther to the northeast, watch for the rising of Capella in Auriga, showing us that while fall is now at hand, winter is not far behind.
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