The Sky This Week 5-11 March 2003

The Moon waxes in the evening sky this week. First Quarter occurs on the 11th at 2:15 am Eastern Standard Time. On the evening of the 9th Luna lies between the Pleiades star cluster and the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. The following two evenings find her on either side of gold-tinted Saturn. If we get lucky enough to have a few really clear nights, try to spot the ghostly glow of Earthshine between the cusps of the lunar disc. This phenomenon is most easily noticed when the Moon is a slender crescent, but keen-eyed folks can still spot it right up to and a bit beyond the First Quarter phase.

The next couple of weeks offer a great opportunity to explore our only natural satellite and closest neighbor in space. It's hard to believe that over 30 years have passed since people last walked on the dusty desolation of the Moon's surface, but anyone who owns binoculars or a small telescope can venture to those far-flung shores by simply taking a trip out to the front yard. Of all the worlds in the solar system, the only solid surfaces we can see from Earth belong to the Moon, Mars, and Mercury. The latter is almost impossible to observe due to its proximity to the Sun, and Mars rarely grows to an apparent size that's as large as a typical lunar crater. A good amateur telescope will reveal details down to a mile or so across on the lunar surface, and the incredible variety of landforms and stark shadows only hints at the alien landscapes that amazed the Apollo astronauts.

The Moon swings by Saturn as the week ends, and at this time the ringed planet will have begun to grind eastward against the stars again. In another month Saturn will slide between the stars that form the horns of Taurus. Right now he's still very well placed for early evening observers, just past the meridian at the end of evening twilight. As he approaches quadrature early next week, the angle of the planet's shadow on the rings is close to its maximum, yielding a nearly 3-D effect.

Bright Jupiter relieves Saturn as lord of the night for late-night skywatchers. The giant planet is slowly creeping westward in his retrograde loop, and binocular observers can see him closing the gap to the wonderful star cluster known as the Beehive. Old Jove passed the cluster back in September 2002, and he'll almost back into it before he ends his retrograde motion a month from now.

The planet Mars is threading his way between two of the summer's showpiece deep-sky objects this week. Early risers can look for the red planet in the east-southeast sky at around 5:30 am, and if you have binoculars look for a pair of fuzzy patches of light above and below the planet. These are the Trifid and Lagoon Nebulae, well-known to most amateur astronomers. At this time look for the rising dazzle of Venus as well.

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