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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Moon over Chicago

Photo of the Week. The rising Moon graces Chicago skies, Lake Michigan in the background.

Astronomy news for the short week starting Sunday, April 21, 2002.

Prepared by Jim Kaler.

Skylights will resume its normal Friday schedule on Friday, April 26.

Skylights made the Astronomy Picture of the Day for April 17, 2002.

The Moon waxes through its gibbous phase this week, reaching toward full phase, which it will attain on Friday, April 26. On Sunday the 21st and Monday the 22nd the Moon will be well-ensconced amid the stars of Leo, while on Thursday the 25th it will pass a bit north of Spica in Virgo. In between, on Wednesday the 24th, the Moon will lie just to the east of the autumnal equinox, where we will find the Sun next September 22nd. The bright Moon will make it difficult to see morning's Comet Ikeya-Zhang, which is coursing through southern Cepheus.

While the Moon will dominate the eastern and morning skies, the planets rule the heavens of western evening. There is no trouble at all finding brilliant Venus, which is now setting after the end of twilight, around 9:45 PM Daylight Time. Using Venus as a guide, then admire the five ancient planets, those known since ancient times, as they line up along the ecliptic, outlining it rather closely rather like a circle thrown up on a planetarium dome. Up and to the left -- to the east -- of Venus is Mars, which has faded nearly to second magnitude, but is still recognizable by its reddish color. Farther up and to the east is much brighter "zeroth" magnitude Saturn. Making its appearance after its superior conjunction with the Sun on April 7 is Mercury, which will be well down and to the right of Venus and near the twilight horizon. Finally, high above, looking down on all the action, and keeping a bit apart, is bright Jupiter, which graces the sky in Gemini until just after 1 AM.

There is more to see in the neighborhood. At the beginning of the week, Venus shines a bit down and to the right of the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. As Venus climbs higher and Taurus sinks in the west, the two will pass each other, Venus to the south, near week's end. Mars, on the other hand, now makes a fine contrast with similarly-colored Aldebaran in Taurus, the planet to the right of the star on a line nearly parallel to the horizon. Saturn is above the Hyades and Aldebaran, Saturn, aldebaran, and Mars making a fine triangle.

Keep watching this assembly as it all more-or-less gathers together. For a given time of night, Venus and Mercury will climb up, whereas Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter will descend, causing three fine conjunctions to take place in early May. Such alignments are not all that uncommon, and have no significant effect on the Earth other than calling people out to watch and to become interested in the night sky and in the science of astronomy.

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