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Rising Moon

Photo of the Week. The waxing gibbous Moon rises behind a winter tree.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, March 2, 2007.

We begin the week, the night of Friday, March 2, with the Moon just shy of full, that phase reached the evening of Saturday the 3rd. The remainder of the week sees the Moon then waning in its gibbous phase toward third quarter, which is not passed until the evening of Sunday the 11th. Because of the eccentricity of the lunar orbit and the gravitational pull of the Sun, the quarters (with "full" as "second quarter") do not quite exactly "quarter" the 29.5 day phase cycle (7.4 days). Here we have a rather long stretch of 8.2 days between first and full. The night of Friday the 2nd, watch for the Moon rising just to the east of Regulus in Leo, with Saturn on a line to the west of the pair.

This full Moon is special, as the night of Saturday the 3rd it will pass through the shadow of the Earth, allowing many of us to see a total eclipse. The event is seen in its entirety in Africa and Europe. The far northeastern coast of North America sees the Moon rising in the east while it is entering the dark umbral shadow, while the southern seaboard and midwestern US and Canada see it rising during totality, which will present an eerie sight indeed. West of the midline of the continent, viewing gets worse, totality missed altogether, while the west coast essentially sees nothing at all. Totality begins at 5:44 EST, while mid-totality is achieved at 6:21 EST, 5:21 CST. Totality ends at 6:58 EST, 5:58 CST, and the show is over (except for the dim penumbral phase with the Moon in partial shadow of the Earth) at 8:12 EST, 7:12 CST, 6:12 MST.

While admiring the eclipse, be sure to turn around to the west to take in one of the great gifts the sky has to offer, brilliant Venus, which is now not setting until a full hour after evening twilight is done with. Saturn, now well up by sundown, will make a nice sight to the west of the eclipsed lunar disk. You'll find the ringed planet about midway up to the south by 10:30 PM. Then wait until 1:30 AM for the rising of Jupiter (to the northeast of Antares). The giant planet is nearly to the meridian by the time it disappears in bright dawn. For awhile we can still forgo Mars.

Two of the great sights of the sky lie in Taurus, which in turn lies above and to the right of Orion. The head of the celestial Bull is made of the vee-shaped Hyades star cluster, which is 150 light years away. Aldebaran, which marks the Bull's eye, is not a part of it, but instead lies a bit under halfway between us and the cluster. Farther up and to the right are the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, which appears smaller because of its greater distance of 425 light years. The telescope shows a huge number of such clusters dotting the immediate area.
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