Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Skylights featured three times on Earth Science Picture of the Day: 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 .

Venus and Mars Venus and Mars

Photos of the Week.. Venus and Mars shine brightly in the western sky the nights of March 9, 2004 (left) and March 11, 2004 (right). Venus is seen to the left of Aries, while Mars beneath the Pleiades star cluster of Taurus. Compare the photos to see the planets move against the background stars.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, March 19, 2004.

We begin the week with the first day of northern hemisphere spring, at least if you are west of the central time zone (where it begins at 12:49 CST the morning of Saturday the 20th). On the west coast of the continental US, it begins at 10:49 PM PST the night of Friday the 19th (about as early as possible), and on the east coast at 1:49 AM EST on the 20th. At these times, the Sun will pass overhead at the equator, rise due east and set due west, rise at the north pole, and set at the south pole. Actually, because the Sun is a disk and because of refraction (bending) of light by the Earth's atmosphere, anyone at the north pole would have seen the Sun come up a couple days before the formal vernal equinox passage.

By coincidence, the Moon passes its new phase on the same day, the evening of Saturday, the 20th. It will be possible, though difficult, to see a thin crescent in western evening twilight by the evening of Sunday, the 21st. By the evening of Monday the 22nd, however, the growing lunar crescent will become obvious, glowing with soft earthlight. Look down and to the right of the Moon on that night, and you might catch a glimpse of Mercury just above the horizon. Binoculars will help.

Then we are in for a treat as the Moon visits the two planets that bracket the Earth. Look to the east in the early evening of Wednesday the 24th to see the Moon and Venus as a classic pair, the brilliant planet just off the crescent Moon's northern horn. Venus is so bright as to be visible in daylight. Use the Moon near sundown, or in bright twilight, to pick up the bright dot of Venus. The following night (Thursday the 25th), the Moon will make an even closer pass to the north of Mars, just barely missing it. Those in the far north (the Arctic and a bit south) can actually see the Moon occult, or cover, the far more distant planet. By this time, Mars will have moved well into Taurus to the east of the Pleiades. Indeed, as we begin the week, Mars is passing to the south of the star cluster, making another fine sight to admire, and giving a good chance to watch the planet's night-to-night motion.

While observing Mars and Venus, be sure too to catch the show being put on by Saturn and Jupiter. As the sky darkens, Saturn is high and to the west of nearly overhead in southern Gemini, the planet crossing the meridian near sunset. To the east, Jupiter shines brightly in southern Leo, crossing the meridian shortly before midnight.

Gemini, with Jupiter and its two bright stars, Castor and Pollux, really does serve as a center of attention. To the northwest is Auriga, to the west Taurus, to the southwest Orion, to the southeast Canis Minor, to the east much dimmer Cancer with its Beehive star cluster. To the northeast is even dimmer, modern Lynx, the eponymous lynx.
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