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Photo of the Week.The Sun descends the afternoon sky.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, February 27, 2009.

Welcome to March and the scent of spring. The Moon finishes February in its waxing crescent phase as it heads toward its first quarter, which is passed the morning of Wednesday, March 4, just after Moonset in North America. It thereafter waxes in the gibbous phase. The Moon and Venus celebrate the end of February by gathering in a tight, classic conjunction the evening of Friday the 27th, when Venus will be found just off the crescent's upper "horn." Be sure to watch! The evening of Saturday the 28th the pair will still make a fine sight, the Moon now well up and to the left of the bright planet.

Venus, amazingly brilliant in western evening twilight, does not have much time left to it as the "evening star." For now though, it still does not set for us until after 8:30 PM. But enjoy for now, because by the end of March it will be gone from view, as it passes between us and the Sun (though not directly) to become a "morning star." As a prelude, the planet enters retrograde (westerly) motion against the background stars the night of Wednesday the 4th, turning in direction toward the Sun.

For a time sharing the sky with Venus, Saturn now rises just after Sunset as it closes in on solar opposition next week. The ringed planet, moving slowly retrograde in southeastern Leo, now crosses the meridian to the south just after local midnight. If we wait 'till dawn, we might get a first glimpse of Jupiter, which now rises just after the commencement of morning twilight. Moving in a stately fashion (as befits the king of the gods and planets) at the rate of one zodiacal constellation to the east per year, Jupiter now resides among the stars of northern Capricornus. To finish the planetary tale, on Sunday the 1st, Mercury and Mars rather invisibly pass conjunction with each other. Less than a degree apart, the red planet will be to the north, the pair down and to the left of Jupiter.

Be sure to follow Comet Lulin, which is easily visible in binoculars. As the week begins it is just southeast of Regulus in Leo, while on the night of Saturday the 28th, it will be to the west of the star. Over the week it will move westerly into Cancer, and the nights of Thursday, March 5, and Friday the 6th, it will appear just to the south of the Beehive Cluster. The comet appears to be a new visitor from the vast Oort Cloud of comets that extends a good way to the nearest star, the comets -- the debris of planet formation -- scattered out of the plantary system billions of years ago by the giant planets.

While winter's eye is drawn to Orion, look to the northeast of the Hunter to admire Gemini, the most northerly of zodiacal constellations, and the classical home to the Summer Solstice (which is really now just over the artificial border into eastern Taurus, the result of the 26,000 year wobble of the Earth's rotation axis). At the top of the constellation shine the bright stars Castor and Pollux, Castor (on top) the brightest of the second magnitude stars.
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