Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, September 14, 2001.

The Moon passes through its new phase this week on Monday the 17th, rendering the stars wonderfully visible throughout the night (weather and stray lights permitting). In the morning sky, the waning crescent puts on a show, when on Saturday the 15th it passes through the Sickle of Leo, and will be found down and to the left of brilliant Venus, and up and to the left of the star Regulus. The waxing crescent will then begin to make its evening appearance in the western sky the night of Tuesday the 18th. The day before the new phase, the Moon passes perigee, when it is closest to the Earth at a distance of only 358,130 kilometers (222,530 miles).

Mercury makes an appearance this week, as it passes greatest eastern elongation relative to the Sun also on Tuesday the 18th (when it is down and to the left of the lunar crescent). Unfortunately, the evening ecliptic lies near its flattest against the horizon this time of year, so the little planet will appear low and difficult to see. On Thursday the 20th, Mercury will pass only a degree to the south of Spica in Virgo. The morning sky again puts on a better show when Venus passes only half a degree (the angular diameter of the Moon) north of Regulus, also on the 20th. We thus have the odd and rare situation where the two stars closest to the ecliptic -- which hold the autumnal equinox between them -- are being visited by the two inner planets, and not just on the same date, but at nearly the same moment, about 3 PM Central Daylight time.

The outer planets are not to be ignored, however. In the evening, Mars glows in the southwest. Moving easterly against the background, the reddish planet has shifted into the confines of Sagittarius. In the morning, Jupiter, second only to Venus in brilliance, shines high above that planet, with fainter but still- prominent Saturn higher yet, the two giant planets still in fairly close proximity.

In the evening, the Summer Triangle, made of Vega, Deneb, and Altair, are at their best, Vega nearly overhead for those at mid- northern latitudes as twilight fades. To the north of Vega, find the two stars that make most of the head of Draco the Dragon, the pair appearing as the Dragon's baleful eyes. Winding toward the north, Draco's tail eventually passes between the Big Dipper in Ursa Major (now going into its autumn hibernation beneath the pole) and the Little Dipper in Ursa Minor, which in early evening stands high upon its curved, though faint, handle. the handle ends at Polaris, which closely marks the North Celestial Pole, about which the northern sky seems to turn.
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