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Misty fields

Photo of the Week. Misty fields await a clear sunrise.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, February 22, 2008.

Having just passed full last Wednesday, February 20, the Moon spends nearly the entire week in its waning gibbous phase as it heads toward third quarter the evening of Thursday the 28th (which, 2008 being a leap year, is not yet the last day of the month). The last day of the week, the morning of Friday the 29th, we'll see just a hint of the waning crescent. Almost exactly a day before the quarter, the Moon passes apogee, where it is farthest from Earth, at a distance about 5.5 percent greater than average. With the Sun approaching the Vernal Equinox in Pisces (which marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere), this third quarter will be very far to the south. The morning of Friday the 29th finds it just to the southeast of Antares in Scorpius.

A pair of planetary events highlight the astronomical week. In the morning hours, we see Venus and Mercury tracking each other, as they will over about the next month. On the morning of Tuesday the 26th, the two will have just passed conjunction, Mercury just over a degree to the north of its much brighter (by about 40 times) companion. The event will be difficult to see, as the planets do not even rise until just after dawn begins to light the sky, and will require a good southeastern horizon and clear air. A couple days before, on Sunday the 24th, Saturn hits a milestone when it passes opposition with the Sun, and thus rises at sunset, sets at sunrise, and crosses the meridian to the south at midnight. Look for it in Leo, just to the east of Regulus, the planet some three times brighter than the star.

The evening and morning, however, are really dominated by Mars and Jupiter. Mars, reddishly bright in far eastern Taurus three degrees north of the Summer Solstice, transits high to the south just as the sky fully darkens at the end of twilight. It then sets around 3 AM, and is replaced about an hour later by Jupiter rising in the southeast, the planet lying in a fine setting to the north of the Little Milk Dipper of Sagittarius.

As the sky darkens and you admire Mars, be sure to look farther overhead for Auriga, the pentagon-shaped Charioteer, which is notable for bright yellow- white Capella, the most northerly of first magnitude stars. Its name meaning "the she-goat," Capella is just northeast of a small, lovely triangle that together make her "Kids." To the south, Orion stalks before his two dogs, Canis Major (with Sirius, the sky's brightest star) and Canis Minor, which holds Procyon.
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