Astronomy news for the week starting Sunday, May 7, 2000.

Find stars that have orbiting planets! The "Planet Project" has been added to the Stars Website.

The next Skylights will appear on Saturday, May 13. The Moon, after leaving the great gathering of planets last week, waxes to first quarter early in the week, the phase reached on Wednesday, May 10, just before passing the Sickle of Leo, the bright star Regulus seen down and to the left.

While the Moon leaves their vicinity, the Gang of Ancient Planets (made of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) continues to group closer in the neighborhood of the Sun (which makes the gathering invisible). As part of the assembly, we have a week of conjunctions. Jupiter first passes the Sun on Sunday, May 7, far to the solar back, six astronomical units (900 million kilometers, 550 million miles) away. Saturn, 70 percent more distant, follows on Wednesday, the 10th. In between, Mercury passes superior conjunction with the Sun, when it is in back of the Sun as well, on Monday, the 8th. Afterward, among the Ancients, only Venus is left to the west of the Sun. (Its turn for conjunction does not come until June 11.) The grouping, while fascinating as an invisible geometric display, has no physical consequences whatsoever. Over the ages such things have happened countless times. The obvious closeness of Jupiter and Saturn is a prelude for their Grand Conjunction on May 31.

While the three outer planets (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto) are excluded from the Great Gathering, at least one raises its hand, as Neptune begins its retrograde, or backward, motion against the background of Capricornus, as it prepares for its opposition with the Sun next July.

In late evening, around 11 PM, the Big Dipper, at the top of a stack of wonderful constellations, crosses nearly overhead for those in the mid-northern hemisphere. Descending southward, we pass the modern constellation Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs) and then the lacy cluster than makes Coma Berenices (Berenices Hair). Farther down, sprawled across the celestial equator, is Virgo, with bright Spica, up and to the left of Corvus (the Crow). Crossing the tail of Hydra (the Water Serpent), we enter the realm of Centaurus (the Centaur), with its great globular cluster Omega Centauri (seen well only south of about 35 degrees north latitude). Finally, to the south of Centaurus (and west of Alpha Centauri, the closest star to the Earth), lies magnificent Crux, the Southern Cross, which for those in mid-southern latitudes crosses the sky much as the Dipper does for those in the north. Between the Dipper and the North Celestial Pole whips the tail of Draco, the Dragon, and between Crux and the South Pole buzzes Musca, the Fly.
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