Skylights featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Photo of the Week. The three parts of Earth, land, sea, and sky.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, May 20, 2011.

Though still bright, the Moon fades away early this week in the waning gibbous phase, which ends at third quarter, that phase achieved Tuesday, May 24, rather well after Moonset in North America. Afterwards, our Moon slims progressively down as a waning crescent. While passing last quarter, the Moon also glides several degrees north of Neptune, which recently made its own passage from extreme northeastern [cap- p.html">Capricornus into surrounding [aqr-p.html">Aquarius. Not that it makes much of a sight, but for completeness, the crescent also visits Uranus (again several degrees to the north of the planet) on the morning of Friday the 27th. Just three hours before the latter conjunction, the Moon also passes apogee, where and when it is farthest from Earth in its monthly round (that event not much noticeable either).

In the eastern dawn sky, the remarkable quartet of planets is slowly breaking up. Moving to the west of the Sun in extreme eastern Pisces to the south of classic Aries, Jupiter is slowly climbing upward and now rises shortly after the start of morning twilight. The remaining trio of Venus (by far the brightest), Mercury (next), and Mars (the faintest) hugs the bright horizon and are very difficult now to see. Having passed north of Mercury last week, Mars (like Jupiter moving westerly relative to the Sun) goes a degree north of Venus on Sunday the 22nd.

Once again, that leaves Saturn as the only one of the ancient planets visible in a dark sky, and a superb sight it is. Still (as it's been all year) to the northwest of Virgo's Spica (Saturn the brighter by about half a magnitude), the ringed planet can now be seen crossing the meridian to the south as the sky darkens. With us nearly all night, Saturn does not then set until just before dawn begins to light the eastern sky.

Winter over, Vela, the Sails of the Ship Argo, slips away. Instead, look in mid-evening from the far south to the far north to see the Big Dipper of Ursa Major (the Greater Bear) nearly overhead for those in temperate climes. To the south of its handle, you might spot the pair of stars that makes Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, while further to the south in a dark sky you can admire the lacy sprawling cluster that makes most of Coma Berenices, Berenices Hair.
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