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The Sky This Week, 2010 March 2 - 9

Lions creep, Venus peeps, and a farewell
Jim_Galileo_1988small.jpg
Jim Sharp as Galileo Galilei
"Astronomy Day" Open House at USNO,
Spring, 1988

The Moon plunges southward as she wends her way into the morning sky this week, dipping low to course her way through the rising summer constellations.  Last Quarter occurs on the 7th at 10:42 am Eastern Standard Time.  Luna starts the week off near the bright blue star Spica, low in the southeast in the late evening of the 2nd.  Early morning skywatchers on the 5th will find her several degrees south of Zubenelgenubi, a second magnitude star with a really great name!  Pre-dawn observers will see the first-quarter Moon some four degrees east of reddish-hued Antares, lead star in the constellation of Scorpius on the morning of the 7th.

As the old saying goes, “March comes in like a lion…”  It’s a very appropriate expression since this is the month when we shake off winter’s shackles and begin to enjoy the annual renewal of spring.  In the sky this is well played out as the bright constellations of winter beat a hasty retreat to the west and the somewhat more subdued stars of spring gain prominence.  By midnight the aptly named constellation of Leo the Lion straddles the meridian some 60 degrees above the southern horizon.  Leo’s heart is marked by the blue-white star Regulus, or “Little King”.  Above the star is a sickle-shaped asterism that forms the lion’s head, while a right triangle of second magnitude stars located a few degrees to the east marks the big cat’s hindquarters.  Another sure sign of spring is now high in the east as Leo prances in the south.  The third-brightest star in the sky, Arcturus, brings his rosy glow into the night, ready to take over for the fading winter luminaries now setting in the west.

This is a good week to begin looking in the evening twilight for the emergence of Venus, who now joins the ranks of evening planets.  Currently the dazzling planet is only visible low in the west about 20 minutes or so after sunset, but she climbs steadily into the sky as the month progresses and sets after the end of twilight by month’s end.  She will undergo a spectacular conjunction with fleet Mercury at this time.

Ruddy Mars may be found close to the twin Stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, all week long.  He has just about completed his retrograde loop and thus doesn’t move much from night to night.  His disc continues to shrink as the gulf of space between us steadily increases, but modest sized telescopes can still glean some details on nights of very steady air.

Saturn continues to diligently move toward opposition, which will occur on the 21st.  His yellowish tint is easy to distinguish from the bluer tones of the stars Regulus and Spica, which flank him in the later evening hours.  His famous rings are tipped just a few degrees to our line of sight, now lit by the Sun on their north face.  When they are wide open the bright rings often mask the visibility of several of the planets small inner moons.  Take advantage of this year’s apparition to track some of the closer ones down before they disappear in glare for the next dozen years.

Finally, I would like to pay a small tribute to James Henry Sharp, my former boss from my days in the planetarium business many years ago.  Jim encouraged me to start writing this weekly feature when the Albert Einstein Planetarium first went online back in the early 1990’s, and I’ve been doing it ever since.  Jim passed away on March 1st, and many in the planetarium community will miss him.  He was an innovator and a motivator who encouraged his employees to find ways to implement his visions and put them on a dome.  His wit and wisdom will be missed by many.  Ad Astra, Jim.  You’ve made the jump.

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