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Orion and Taurus

Photo of the Week. With the approach of winter, Orion and company (Taurus toward upper right) come onto the scene. Note the Pleiades in the upper right corner. The bright body above Orion is Saturn, which was passing through Taurus in February of 2003. Procyon in Canis Minor is at far left.

Astronomy news for the week starting Friday, November 17, 2006.

To those in the US (and elsewhere too), a Happy Thanksgiving.

We begin as always with the ever-popular Moon (at least unless you are trying to see faint stars), which begins the week as a slim waning crescent in the morning sky and then goes through new on Monday, November 20th. The morning of Saturday the 18th finds it just to the east of Spica in Virgo, which is now in the act of clearing the Sun. By the evening of Wednesday the 22nd you can find the narrow waxing crescent in western twilight, the Moon then growing in phase during the remainder of the week. It's a good time to admire the glow of Earthlight illuminating the lunar night.

Most of the bright planets remain bunched near the Sun. Jupiter is the champion no-show, as it passes conjunction with the Sun (far to the other side of it) on Tuesday the 21st, thereafter becoming a morning planet (though not visible until mid- December). Mercury at least makes the attempt. After a beautifully observed transit across the Sun last Wednesday, it pops into the morning sky heading toward greatest western elongation next Saturday the 25th. By the end of the week it will be visible in eastern morning twilight. The little planet is visited by the waning crescent Moon the morning of Saturday the 19th, the event essentially invisible in bright dawn.

The planetary sky is thus dominated by Saturn. Moving ever more into the evening sky, the ringed planet (all the outer planets having rings, Saturn just having by far the brightest) now rises an hour before midnight. Look for it in the morning sky to the west of Regulus in Leo. As a planetary coda, Uranus (in Aquarius) ceases retrograde motion on Monday the 20th, and begins to move in its normal easterly direction against the background stars.

It's worth a look to see if you can see any Leonid meteors (named after the seeming direction of origin in the constellation Leo), the shower peaking near the morning of Saturday the 19th. The debris flaked from Comet Tempel-Tuttle is, however, best seen from Europe and Africa. Here we might see a few over a few-day period.

As northern hemisphere winter closes in, we might contemplate the Vernal Equinox (where the Sun will be on the first day of Spring), which now rides high in Pisces. The invisible point, where the ecliptic (the apparent path of the Sun) crosses the celestial equator, lies just down and to the left of the faint "Circlet," which represents the body of the western of the two mythical fishes. The rest of the constellation sprawls in a huge "vee" to the east and then to the north, wrapping around the Great Square of Pegasus.
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