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Astronomy Picture of the Day


Photo of the Week.. The reddened setting Sun drops toward the horizon. Because we look through much thicker atmosphere, the lower edge is dimmer and redder.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, October 11, 2002.

The Moon begins our week in its late waxing crescent phase, then quickly passes through first quarter the night of Saturday the 12th just about the time of Moonset in North America. The night of Friday the 11th, it is about as far south as possible. Not only does the Moon pass close to the deep southern winter solstice in Sagittarius, but the tilt of the orbit takes it even farther to the south. The latter part of the week sees the Moon climb the sky in the waxing gibbous phase. As our companion swings northward, it passes south of Neptune on Monday the 14th, and south of Uranus the next day, both planets being very close to the ecliptic path.

After a lovely long appearance, Venus is now effectively gone from the evening skies. But the inner planets still shine forth, as in the morning, Mercury makes its best show for the year, when it is seen low in the east in morning twilight. "Best" is still difficult, as the elusive planet is so close to the Sun that it can never be seen in complete darkness. Mercury has been visited by but one spacecraft, and only distant Pluto remains more mysterious. The giant planets are far more visible. Saturn starts the week in its "stationary" mode, and for the remainder of the year will be in retrograde, or westerly, movement in between the stars of Taurus and Gemini. Now rising much earlier, around 10 PM Daylight Time, it beats much brighter Jupiter by three and a half hours, Jupiter rather dramatically rising around 1:30 Daylight Time.

The formal constellations number 88, 48 from ancient times. One, Argo, broken into three, make 50, then add 38 modern ones, invented between about 1600 and 1800, to make the full 88. Many more are the informal constellations, "asterisms" like the Big Dipper, which inhabits Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and the Little Dipper, which lies in Ursa Minor. Sagittarius, disappearing now into southwestern twilight, has a wonderful variety of them. The celestial Archer is best known for its 5-star upside-down "Little Milk Dipper" whose handle sticks into the Milky Way. This small dipper figure also makes the eastern side of the famed "Teapot." Complementing the teapot is a compact set of stars that lies directly north of the dipper figure and that represent "the Teaspoon." The neighboring zodiacal constellation to the east, Capricornus, which now contains Neptune, has no prominent asterisms, but the next one over, Aquarius, has the prominent four-star "Water Jar," and the next one Pisces (which contains the vernal equinox) has its "Circlet." Aries is bereft of them, and then, rising over the horizon in late evening is Taurus with its beautiful star clusters, the Hyades (which makes the head of the celestial Bull) and the Pleiades, or "Seven Sisters."
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