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The Sky This Week, 2014 February 25 - March 4

Marching toward Spring.

Jupiter, two moons, and a shadow, 2014 February 23, 03:09 UT 

The Moon returns to the evening sky as March commences. New Moon occurs on the 1st at 3:00 am Eastern Standard Time. This is one of those years when February gets cheated out of all four Moon phases, with January and March reaping the spoils by having five phases each. The second New Moon for March will occur on the 30th. Look for the very thin waning crescent Moon low in the southeastern sky below dazzling Venus just before sunrise on the 26th.

You still have until the end of February to observe the sky for science. The second campaign of the "Globe At Night" citizen-science observing program runs through the night of the 28th. Right now is a great time to get acquainted with the program since Orion, the brightest of the targeted constellations, is on the meridian at the end of evening twilight. To date this year some 3100 observations have been submitted to the program’s website, and the coordinators hope to get several thousand more. Take a few minutes on the next clear night to count the number of stars you see in Orion’s environs.

March is a month that brings rapid changes to the night sky. While summer’s constellations seem to linger well into the fall, winter’s stars seem to beat a hasty retreat from the headlong rush of the Sun toward the northern skies. If you enjoy touring the bright stars of the Great Winter Circle with binoculars your time is becoming quite limited. While the brighter stars will be visible as the Moon waxes and brightens the sky, the fainter subtleties of the Milky Way with its embedded star clusters and bright nebulae will soon be washed out. When the Moon passes into the morning sky in a few more weeks these favorites will be well on their way to setting for the rest of the year.

The inexorable motion of Earth around the Sun is also beginning to affect the position of the bright planet Jupiter. The giant planet has been our brightest planetary target since the beginning of the year, but he, too, is making steady progress toward the west. You’ll find Old Jove near the meridian as evening twilight deepens, and he straddles the north/south line as the dark of night falls. This will be the best time to observe him since he will be at his highest altitude, affording us a good view through the least amount of our distorting atmosphere. If you have a modest telescope you can watch the famous Great Red Spot rotate across the planet’s face on the evenings of the 26th and 28th. On the latter evening you’ll get a bonus as the innermost of the Galilean moons, Io, transits the planet’s disc in advance of its tiny black shadow. Watching features such as these helps one to appreciate the machinations of the solar system, as you can spot appreciable changes in a matter of a dozen minutes. I am never bored when I’m at the eyepiece looking at Jupiter!

Mars has been waiting quietly in the wings for Jupiter’s time in the sky to play out. By the end of the week the red planet rises at around 9:30 pm, and late-night skywatchers will find him quite easy to spot in the southeast by 11:00 pm. He is rapidly brightening as the earth overtakes him for the coming opposition, and he stands out easily among the few bright stars of spring. He’s currently located just over five degrees from the blue-tinted star Spica, and the contrast in colors between the two objects is quite striking.

Golden Saturn finally cracks the evening sky, rising just before midnight as March opens. The best time to see him is still before sunrise, but he will also become prominent all night long by later in the spring. If you’re up before the Sun he’s well worth a look.

If you’re up looking at Saturn as morning twilight gathers, take a few minutes to find bright Venus. This shouldn’t be too difficult if you have a clear southeastern horizon since Venus is bright enough to be seen in daylight! The morning of the 26th should be a great time to look for her as she leads the slender waning Moon into the gathering glow of dawn.

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