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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

Follow the Big Dipper

The sun sets a little before 8:00 this week, with full darkness coming almost an hour later. By that time, the great bear Ursa Major is almost directly overhead. The third-largest constellation, Ursa Major has been seen as a great she-bear by ancient peoples from Greece to India, Babylon to North America.

Only the strongest of this year’s Lyrid meteors will pierce the glare

The waning gibbous moon rises around midnight at week’s end and shines bright through dawn, which puts a damper on the annual Lyrid meteor shower, peaking in the dark hours of Thursday/Friday and Friday/Saturday.

A rainbow of hues shines from the heavens

The waxing moon reaches full phase Sunday. Saturday it shines less than 10 degrees — the span of an average fist held at arm’s length — below Saturn, the only visible evening planet. The next night, the full moon is farther to the east of Saturn, and the star Regulus five degrees above it. Saturn and Regulus appear about equally bright, both near first magnitude, but Saturn’s steady golden glow is a sharp contrast to the twinkling, blue-white star.

Follow the moon to these star clusters

The moon waxes through afternoon and evening skies this week, passing through the spring constellations of the zodiax and reaching first-quarter phase Monday.

We have several planets to look for, but they’re disappearing fast

The waning moon reaches last-quarter on Saturday, rising around 2:30am and shining high in the south as the sun rises at 7am. If you’re up before this time, look to the east for blazing Venus.

Neither plane nor loon, it’s Super Moon

Thursday’s near-full moon shines below the bright star Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion. This star, 77 light years away, has four times the girth, burns more than twice as hot and is more than 100 times brighter than our sun.

Spring is days away, but the stars of winter still rule the heavens

Thursday as the sun sets around 6:10, the waxing moon glows high in the west. Look just a few degrees below this smiling crescent for glimmers from the Pleiades star cluster. With clear dark skies you might see six of these distant lights, but with the moon’s glow you’ll have an easier time with binoculars, which should reveal far more stars. Shaped like a small dipper, the Pleiades cluster fits within a pair of binocular’s field of view, about 5 degrees.

Sometimes we can’t see the things right before our eyes

By week’s end, the moon is lost amid the glare of the sun, with new moon at 3:46 Friday afternoon. While you might say that the moon has disappeared behind the sun, it has in truth disappeared in front of the sun. As our natural satellite, the moon’s orbit around earth never carries it opposite the sun. Rather, the new moon is there before our eyes, as close as ever. But as it hovers in broad daylight directly between Earth and the sun, we are blind to it.

If not for science, then do it for the thrill of the hunt

By the time the sun sets around 5:55, Jupiter shines through the fading twilight low in the west. There should be no mistaking Jove’s brilliant glow, but the darker the sky grows, the closer to the horizon he settles, finally disappearing around 8pm.

The cycle continues in the heavens and in distant galaxies

February’s full moon straddles Thursday and Friday, appearing equally large both nights. The actual moment of totality is at 4:36am Friday, when the moon is opposite the sun with earth smack-dab between the two.     Despite some spring-like days, February often ushers in the heaviest snowfalls of the year, hence the names the Snow Moon and the Hunger Moon. But February also marks the stirrings of life, as names like the Sap Moon and  the Worm Moon indicate.