Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Skylights featured nine times on Earth Science Picture of the Day: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Photo of the Week. Colors of evening.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, May 6, 2011.

Our Moon finishes up its waxing crescent phase the early part of the week, passing its first quarter on Tuesday, May 10, as it climbs the eastern daylight sky. It then spends the rest of Skylights' weekly period as a waxing gibbous, spreading ever more light upon the nighttime land. We start with the crescent to the west of Gemini, then watch the first quarter glide to the southwest of Regulus in Leo. The night of Thursday the 12th, look for the waxing gibbous to shine about 20 degrees due west of Saturn in Virgo as it prepares to pass to the south of the ringed planet. The autumnal equinox, where we find the Sun on the first day of autumn, will lie between them.

The morning sky is the stage for a remarkable interplay of planets, though sadly you need binoculars, good timing in dawn's light, and a clear horizon to see it. For the next week or so, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury (the gang rising about 5 AM Daylight Time) will make a constantly- shifting tightly-packed quartet with Venus the brightest, followed by Jupiter, Mercury, then Mars. Early in the week, rising Jupiter will be down and to the left of Venus with Mercury down and a bit to the right of our brightest planet (which is briefly visible to the naked eye). With Mercury at greatest western elongation on Saturday the 7th, it and Venus will sink toward the Sun, while Jupiter will pull away from it. Jupiter then passes conjunction with Mercury (Jupiter 2 degrees to the north) on Tuesday the 10th, then with Venus (Jupiter also to the north, but by just half a degree) the next day. The morning of Wednesday the 11th, the three will bundle into a tight pack with Jupiter now up and to the right of Venus, with Mars farther down and to the left. As Jupiter climbs out of twilight, the other three maintain themselves as a close trio for much of the remainder of the month.

Watching the whole affair from the other side of the sky is lonely Saturn, which is well up in the east at sunset (still to the northwest of Spica), crosses the meridian to the south around 10:30 PM, and then sets just before the planetary quartet rises.

Saturn draws the eye to Spica, then to Virgo, the star making the southern anchor of the constellation, with some of it sprawling out to the northwest where it encounters Leo, the rest of it going to the northeast toward Libra and Serpens, none of it making a really distinctive figure. Among the more obvious stars is Porrima, Gamma Virginis (and second brightest in the constellation), which lies about 15 degrees to the northwest of Spica and currently just about a degree to the northwest of Saturn.
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