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Photo of the Week. Mountains, sea, and sky.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, August 10, 2007.

The Moon plows through its new phase this week on Sunday, August 12th, perfect timing for the Perseid meteor shower (see below). You can still spot the thin waning crescent in eastern dawn the morning of Friday the 10th, and even on that of Saturday the 11th. Then try for the ultrathin waxing crescent in western twilight the evening of Monday the 13th. The Moon will then become increasingly visible as the week progresses and as it approaches first quarter on Monday, August 20.

This week and a bit into next feature a rather unusual quadruple planetary event that ought to be at looked in its entirety. First, Neptune comes into opposition with the Sun on Monday the 13th. This most distant major planet is very slowly retrograding through Capricornus just to the northwest of Delta and Gamma Capricorni. Though well under naked-eye visibility, it's not hard to spot in a small telescope or even good binoculars, providing you have it located on a good star map. Next up are the two inferior planets, Venus and Mercury, both of which rather oddly undergo conjunctions with the Sun just over two days apart, Mercury passing superior conjunction (on the other side of the Sun) on Wednesday the 15th, Venus its long-awaited inferior conjunction (more or less between us and the Sun) on Friday the 17th. Then just four days later, Saturn follows with its own solar conjunction. Needless to say, none of this trio will be visible.

That leaves the planetary sky to Jupiter and Mars. The giant planet now transits right at sunset, so that by the time the sky darkens, you can find it a bit to the southwest. Look for Antares in Scorpius to the west of it, and note the strong color contrast between the yellowish planet and the red supergiant. Jupiter then sets at local midnight (1 AM Daylight) just half an hour after Mars rises, beautifully placed north of the Hyades cluster in Taurus. Now note the color similarity between the "red planet" and the red giant Aldebaran, which lies in front of the cluster (but is not a part of it). Pay NO attention to the "email that won't die" that says Mars will be "as big as the Moon" in August. It's from the last favorable opposition in August of 2003, and it was wrong anyway.

Be sure to catch the Perseid meteor shower the morning of Monday the 13th (the night of Sunday the 12th), as the annual event is primed for the western hemisphere. The debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids (which seem to come from the constellation Perseus) may offer as many as 90 meteors per hour.

Just below the curve of Scorpius's tail, if far enough south you can see the most southerly of the ancient constellations, Ara, the Altar, which provides a gateway to southern-hemisphere skies. From temperate southern latitudes, in the evening you can spot Crux, the Southern Cross, over to the west, being followed across the sky by Beta and Alpha Centauri, and then by bright Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle.
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