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Earth and sky

Photo of the Week. Earth and sky.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, February 15, 2013.

Yay, we are back to weekly sky news. But is it "news" if it's in advance of the event? No matter. The Moon begins it happily in its late waxing crescent phase as it approaches first quarter on Sunday, February 17, when it will be well up in the east in the afternoon. The Moon thereafter goes into the waxing gibbous phase, fattening and rising ever later as it heads towards full early next week. Once again, the Moon makes a close pass to Jupiter. This time, it will a bit west of the planet the night of Sunday the 17th, closest approach not taking place until after the pair sets the following morning. The night of Monday the 18th, the Moon will not only be on the other side (to the east) of the planet with Aldebaran below, but will go through its apogee, where it is farthest from the Earth. But not by much, a mere 5.5 percent or so from the average of 384,400 kilometers (239,000 miles), the variation in angular size not sensible to the eye.

In the early evening, if you have a clean western horizon you might spot Mercury, which reaches greatest eastern elongation relative to the Sun on Saturday the 16th. For a couple days around that date, look for a bright celestial dot in twilight, the planet setting just as the sky fully darkens. As hard as Mercury may be to find, Jupiter is easy. Just look high to the south or west in early evening for the brightest thing you can see (barring the obvious Moon). Then watch as the planet glides down the northwestern sky, accompanied just to the southeast by the star Aldebaran, Jupiter not setting until around 1:30 AM. Jupiter's more distant mate, Saturn, has now passed something of a milestone by rising just before midnight. Hanging out nearly 20 degrees to the east of Spica, Saturn now hardly moves at all against the stellar background as it begins its retrograde (westerly) motion amongst the stars of dim Libra on Tuesday the 19th. It won't reach opposition to the Sun, however, until April draws to a close. Quite invisible, Neptune passes conjunction with the Sun on Thursday the 21st.

Look to the south of bright Orion to find the Hunter's prey, Lepus the Hare, the most obvious part of which looks like two distorted boxes stitched together. Some 15 degrees farther down is a more peaceful figure, a small flat triangle of stars that represents the modern constellation of Columba, the Dove.
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