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 .

Red Sunset

Photo of the Week.. A fiery sunset announces the coming night.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, February 13, 2004.

We begin the week on Friday the 13th with the Moon in its third quarter. During the remainder of the week it will wane in its crescent phase until it reaches new on the morning of Friday, the 20th. In between, on the morning of Monday the 16th, our neighbor passes perigee, where it is 5.5 percent closer to us than average. A bit over a day before new, on Wednesday the 18th, it glides invisibly south of Neptune, which has only recently cleared the Sun. As the Moon's crescent slims, watch for growing Earthlight on the lunar nighttime side glowing softly in morning twilight.

It is the evening sky, however, that now holds the delights, not the morning, as all the ancient planets but Mercury put on a lovely show. Its brilliance punctuating western evening twilight, Venus leads them all. To the southwest find much dimmer reddish Mars. Falling only slowly behind the Earth, the red planet moves liesurely to the east against the stars south of Aries and north of the head of Cetus, setting half an hour before midnight. Farther over in western Gemini, Saturn glides high in the sky (for mid-latitude northerners) across the meridian to the south around 9 PM. The set is completed by bright Jupiter, second only to Venus, which can be found rising between classical Leo and Virgo just as twilight ends, the giant planet just a bit to the west of the Autumnal Equinox. Between about 7 and 9 PM all four planets are in the sky at the same time, making for superb telescopic viewing. A small telescope quickly reveals Jupiter's cloud belts and satellites, Venus's gibbous disk, and Saturn's glorious rings plus its big moon, Titan .

Several constellation groups around the sky are made of stars that more or less belong together, not as real clusters, but as more extended families (or "associations") whose members were born at roughly the same time (in astronomical terms of course). To be together still, they must be "young," and therefore must still contain hot blue stars that give such constellations their sparkle. Among them are groupings like Orion, Scorpius, and Centaurus, as well as several others. This time of year, another goes flying overhead in early northern evenings, Perseus, the hero and rescuer of Andromeda, which is made of streams of stars, some of which are the hottest in the naked-eye sky. Find the figure directly to the west of Auriga, the Charioteer, which itself stands to the north of Orion, the Hunter the central figure of the northern winter sky.
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