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Stormy sunset

Photo of the Week..Stormy sunset.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, March 1, 2002.

The early part of the week finds the Moon waning through its gibbous phase as it heads toward third quarter on Tuesday the 5th. It thereafter fades as a waning crescent. With the Sun approaching the Vernal Equinox in Pisces, this third quarter will be one of the two lowest of the year, as the Moon will be passing near the Scorpius-Sagittarius border. The next one, which takes place about two weeks after the equinox, will be equally low.

In early February, Saturn, still in Taurus, ceased retrograde and began once again to move to the east against the starry background. Now it is Jupiter's turn. Shining brilliantly in Gemini, the giant planet will become "stationary" on Friday, March 1. Coincidentally, Jupiter is now near its highest possible northerly position. About 6 degrees to the east of the summer solstice, the planet is 23 degrees 17 minutes north of the celestial equator. It will "max out" on March 13 at 23 degrees 27 minutes and will then slowly move south. Northerners will not see it so high -- or those in the southern hemisphere so low -- for another 12 years. Jupiter is now circumpolar (never setting) north of the Arctic Circle and is invisible, below the horizon, south of the Antarctic Circle.

Mars, moving rather dramatically to the north and east, has just passed across the boundary from Pisces into Aries. Though the Sun is catching up with it, the northerly trek keeps the planet from setting much earlier each night, and it is still up until almost 10 PM, though far away and not much of a sight in a telescope.

Orion is now at its early-evening peak. The great constellation, one of the most recognizable in the sky, appears to the meridian to the south around 7 PM, about the time twilight ends. As spring approaches, the Hunter will move ever so gradually into the southwest, eventually to be lost to the Sun in late April. The constellation is one of the few whose stars are not just randomly distributed, but actually have some relation to one another. Much of the constellation is a loose, expanding, "association" of recently-born hot massive stars, which is what gives the figure its bluish sparkle. The belt stars (Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak), Rigel, Saiph, and Meissa all belong to the "Orion OB1 Association" along with many others that include Sigma and the stars of the famed Orion Nebula. Scorpius, who in mythology killed Orion, is oddly similar, most of its stars part of a giant association. Then there are the constellations made of clusters. The Hyades forms the head of Taurus the Bull, Coma Berenices is made mostly of cluster stars, and the middle five stars of the Big Dipper of Ursa Major, now climbing the northeastern sky, are all members of the same group.
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