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Bright Clouds

Photo of the Week. Bright blowing clouds and their shadows enhance the crisp blue of the sky.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, May 18, 2007.

The Moon continues with its waxing crescent ways, fattening more and more until it passes first quarter on Wednesday the 23rd, at which point it will enter the waxing gibbous. The evening of Friday, May 18th, finds the crescent between the star Elnath (Beta Tauri, which joins Taurus to Auriga) and, higher up, the bright stars of Gemini.

The week is then marked by three lunar passages, the grandest of which will be a close, classical pairing between the crescent and Venus the evening of Saturday the 19th, the two under two degrees (four lunar diameters) apart. Fine conjunctions like this one do not come along that often, so set aside some time to watch. The setting is equally charming, with the Moon and Venus placed smack in the middle of Gemini, Castor and Pollux seeming to look admiringly down upon them. And if that is not enough, when the sky darkens a bit, the nighttime side of the lunar disk will be gently lit with Earthlight.

The other two passages, in which the Moon glides past Saturn and then Regulus (in Leo), seem to pale in comparison, in part because of their relative faintness and in part because they happen during daylight in North America with the Moon quite out of sight. Nevertheless, take a look the night of Monday the 21st to see the crescent to the west of Saturn. By the following night it will have moved to the east of the planet, planting itself between Saturn and Regulus, while the night after that, it will be to the east of the star. The Moon actually occults both of them, but not as generally seen from North America.

Venus finally begins to top out this week, setting as late as it is going to do so, around 11:45 PM Daylight Time, the difference from night to night now inconsequential. Though its brilliance overwhelms the sky (the planet 14 times brighter than the brightest star), Venus will continue getting marginally brighter for several more weeks. Only Jupiter can begin to compare. Watch as the giant planet rises in the southeast around 9:30 PM (to the northeast of fainter Antares), shortly before the end of evening twilight. In between Venus and Jupiter is Saturn. In the western sky as darkness falls, Saturn stays up 'till well after midnight, not setting until 1:30 AM.

In other news, Mercury is popping up a bit in the northwest just after sundown, Mars slowly separates from the onset of dawn (look for it low in the east), and Neptune begins retrograding the night of Thursday the 24th.

Ursa Major's Big Dipper is now at its evening best, the seven- star pattern wonderfully obvious. The Little Dipper is not bad either, the figure rising to the right of the Pole toward it's bigger brother. Opposite the pole, far beneath it, are Cassiopeia and Cepheus, which are almost impossible to see without a fine northern horizon. The southern hemisphere has its glories as well, as now is the season for the Southern Cross, tucked in beneath bright Centaurus. While facing the South Celestial Pole, to the right are Carina of Argo and dimmer Volans (the Flying Fish, appropriate to the Ship), while to the left lies Triangulum Australe, a much larger counterpart of the northern hemisphere's autumnal Triangulum.
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