Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Photo of the Week. Good day at black rock.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, February 4, 2011.

The evening skies are dominated by the growing crescent Moon, which spends the week climbing out of western dusk as it heads toward its first quarter, the phase reached the night of Thursday, February 10, around the time of Moonset in North America. During the early part of the week, while the crescent is slim, watch for Earthlight on the lunar nighttime side, allowing the whole Moon to be illuminated (as it always is in the narrow crescent phase). The night of Sunday the 6th, look for the Moon to glide several degrees to the right of Jupiter, the pairing making a fine sight. The same day, the Moon passes its apogee, where it is farthest from Earth.

Speaking of Jupiter, it is slowly disappearing, the bright planet gone from evening skies by 9 PM. Now almost exactly on the celestial equator 2.5 degrees or so to the east of the Vernal Equinox in Pisces, it has also now pulled well (nearly four degrees) to the northeast of much dimmer Uranus, which, though visible to the naked eye, is still a tough find in our brightened skies.

The difference in time between Jupiter setting and Saturn rising has now shrunk to about an hour, the ringed planet coming up in the east about 10 PM set among the stars of Virgo to the northwest of Spica, where it will hang out for some time. (On a personal note, that is where I first found the planet when I was young. I've now watched it go around the Sun twice on its near-30-year orbit. Jupiter's up to five.) Look for Saturn due south as it crosses the celestial meridian about 4 AM.

In the morning, though Venus is now rising later and dawn is commencing earlier, the brilliant planet is still very much with us, rising just before 4:30 AM, more than an hour before the sky begins to lighten. It is so bright that it stays nicely visible in the southeast well into late twilight. It does however, remain Mars's week, as the red planet goes through conjunction with the Sun as we begin our period, on Friday the 4th. But since the planet almost keeps pace with the faster-moving Earth, don't look for it in morning skies anytime soon.

Nothing rules the skies quite like Orion, which is now high to the south (at least from mid-North America) in mid-evening. Up and a bit to the right stomps Taurus, the celestial Bull, which connects even farther to the north with Auriga, the Charioteer. The figure holds bright Capella, the most northerly first magnitude star, which is so bright (sixth in the sky after Vega) that it actually falls into "magnitude zero."
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