Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Skylights featured nine times on Earth Science Picture of the Day: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Photo of the Week. Sunset from 30,000 feet.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, February 11, 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.

A very quiet week indeed, which, given the national weather, is not such a bad idea. We do of course have our ever-present Moon going through its phases. This week continues the cycle. Beginning with the Moon just past its first quarter (the night of Thursday, February 10), it waxes through the gibbous phase to full the night of Thursday the 17th, the phase more "perfect" closer to Moonset in North America the following morning. While there are no planetary passages to admire, the late-gibbous can be found passing south of Castor and Pollux in Gemini, while the full Moon will lie to the south of the Sickle of Leo and near Regulus, though the stars will become increasingly difficult to see as the Moon brightens.

Now setting just after 8:30 PM, Jupiter has become an early-evening object. Look for it in the west shortly after sundown. But only an hour or so later, up comes Saturn in the east, followed to the southeast of it by Virgo's Spica. With us the rest of the night, the ringed planet now crosses the meridian to the south around 3:30 AM. If you don't mind the chill, Venus then rises an hour later in the southeast still a good hour before the beginning of morning's dawn. And if you are a reasonably early riser, look for it fairly high in southeastern skies as it becomes lost into bright twilight. All that is left is to note Neptune's conjunction with the Sun the morning of Thursday the 17th.

While the brightness of the growing gibbous Moon quiets the night sky, making stars more difficult to see, it's still easy in mid-evening to admire bright Orion, which will be high to the south. Look especially for the signature three-star Belt, which the ancient Arabs appropriately called the "String of Pearls." The constellation is so prominent largely because, unlike the situation for most celestial figures, many of its massive young stars are loosely related and born very roughly at the same time. To see Orion's centerpiece, use almost any kind of telescope or even binoculars, and focus in on the middle star of Orion's Sword, which falls to the south from the Belt. The fuzzy, cloud-like object is the famed Orion Nebula, which marks a recent star-forming region and a massive young stellar cluster. Once the Moon clears out of the way, on a dark night you can see the faint winter Milky Way running down the sky to he left of the great figure.
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