Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, August 19, 2001.

During this shortened period, the Moon waxes through its crescent phase, first quarter reached next Saturday, August 25th. The night of Wednesday, the 22nd, the Moon will make a nice pass to the north of the star Spica in Virgo, which is now seen well to the southwest as twilight draws to a close.

In spite of the growing Moon, the evening still belongs to Mars, which shines brightly just to the west of south as the sky darkens. Follow its progress as it ever-so-slowly (but with increasing speed) pulls to the east of reddish Antares in Scorpius, the star not very far to the right of the red planet. Three planets ride the morning sky, the leader Venus. Moving to the east against the stars of Gemini, the brilliant planet passes seven degrees to the south of Pollux, Gemini's brightest star, on Wednesday, the 22nd. To the west of Venus, find bright Jupiter, and rather well to the west of Jupiter is Saturn, the two giant planets of course far beyond Venus, Jupiter almost 5 times farther away, Saturn nearly eight.

The night of Tuesday, the 21st, the Winter Solstice in Sagittarius will be directly south at 9 PM Daylight Time. The Solstice, the most southerly point of the ecliptic, marks the position of the Sun on the first day of northern winter. Just rising exactly in the east at that time will be the Vernal Equinox, the point at which the solar path crosses the equator.

Immediately to the left of the equinox, which lies 23.4 degrees south of the celestial equator, is a small fuzzy spot visible to the naked eye, a large cloud of interstellar gas and dust, the Lagoon Nebula, or Messier 8. Binoculars will make the cloud immediately jump from the background. Almost directly north, and nearly overhead at mid-northern latitudes, lies one of the most ancient constellations of the sky, Hercules, the celestial memorial to the great hero, the figure originally known as the "Kneeler." Toward the northwestern corner lies another fuzzy spot, the greatest of the northern globular clusters, Messier 13, the "Great Cluster in Hercules." The telescopic view of the cluster, which contains somewhere around a million stars, is stunning. To the west of Hercules is the semi-circle that makes Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown; its southern hemisphere counterpart, Corona Australis, the Southern Crown, lies south of Sagittarius. To the east of Hercules find Lyra, the Harp, brilliantly marked by Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky.
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