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Silver linings

Photo of the Week. Silver linings.

Astronomy news for the two weeks starting Friday, February 13, 2015.

The next skylights will appear February 27, 2015.

Our fortnight opens with the Moon thinning in its waning crescent phase as it approaches new on Wednesday, February 18, your last look in the east the morning of Thursday the 17th with Mercury to the right. The previous morning, the little planet will be down and to the left of the crescent. Making a decent appearance, Mercury goes through its greatest western elongation from the Sun on Tuesday the 24th. The Moon then flips to the other side of the sky, appearing as a waxing crescent in the west with first look the evening of Thursday the 19th, the Moon nearly at perigee, where it is closest to Earth. It then heads toward first quarter on Wednesday the 25th, after which it will enter the waxing gibbous phase.

The planets (indeed, with the Moon) give us a special treat during the middle of our period. Mars has been slowly working its way north as it falls behind Earth, but has been setting around 8 PM since early last November. At the same time, Venus has night-to-night been slowly and brilliantly creeping up (you can't miss it in western twilight), the two approaching each other. Finally, on Saturday the 21st, they meet in conjunction just half a degree apart, the angular diameter of the full Moon, Mars to the north. The contrast is remarkable, Venus a creamy white, Mars a yellow- orange, even reddish color, Venus some 100 times brighter. Even better, on that night the Moon gets into the act, the slim crescent hovering above the two. The evening before, a slimmer crescent passes a couple degrees north of them. The planets then slowly separate as each night Venus climbs ever higher.

What's left but Jupiter, which is now already up in the east as the sky darkens and transits the meridian shortly before midnight. Moving slowly retrograde, westward against the stars, Jupiter stands brightly between Leo and dim Cancer to the west of the star Regulus. Oh, but then there is Saturn rising a couple hours after Jovian transit, and Neptune, which invisibly goes through conjunction with the Sun on Wednesday the 25th.

And speaking of the Sun, it's slowly creeping northward toward the Vernal Equinox and northern spring and is now a full 10 degrees north of the Winter Solstice parallel.

In early evening, Orion and the rest of the winter gang ride high. But as Jupiter announces, Leo and spring are not far behind. To the northeast the Big Dipper rises, while the "W" of Cassiopeia descends. Lonely Polaris, however, maintains its steadfast position, up from the horizon at an angle about that of your latitude: the first law of celestial navigation.

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