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Photo of the Week. Peace (Bruce Kaler).

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, March 9, 2012.

Daylight Savings Time begins Sunday, March 11. All times below are standard. Add one hour for DST.

Having just come off of full phase, the Moon wanes this week, first in its gibbous phase and then, after achieving its third quarter on the night of Wednesday, March 14, as a fat crescent. The night of Saturday the 10th, the Moon will pass six degrees south of Saturn, the planet, the Moon, and the star Spica (to the southwest of Saturn) making a fine triangle. On Saturday the 10th, the Moon will pass through its perigee, where it is closest to Earth (but only by about five percent).

The prize of the week is the conjunction between the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter. Formal north-south conjunction actually takes place the morning of Thursday the 15th, with the pair out of sight. But a few days earlier are actually better for viewing, the two getting to within three degrees of each other and not setting until 10 PM. Look in western evening twilight during our week to see brighter Venus on the right, Jupiter on the left. After this grand display, Jupiter will sink evening-by-evening toward the horizon, while Venus will continue to gain in altitude and brilliance throughout the month and all of April.

That leaves Mercury, which sets at the end of evening twilight, Mars, and Saturn. Having passed opposition with the Sun, Mars, rivaling the brightest stars, is now well up in the east as the sky darkens, to the south of the classical figure of Leo and several degrees to the east of the star Regulus. The ringed planet then rises at 9 PM or so, as noted above to the northeast of Spica, both in Virgo, the next constellation of the Zodiac to the east of Leo. Mars next crosses the meridian to the south a half hour before midnight, while Saturn does the same near 2:30 AM, the pair making another, though far more separated, sight.

Orion and his gang are now slowly escaping to the west, but are still eminently visible. As they shift along, look for the bright stars of Puppis, the Stern of Argo, down to the south and east of Canis Major, which is instantly recognizable by the brightest star in the sky, Sirius.
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