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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

After almost 4,000 days in space, this probe died for science

This week Mercury shows its best face in homage to the Messenger spacecraft, which crashed into the planet early morning April 30.     The craft was launched in August 2004 and reached Mercury in March 2011, the first to orbit the innermost planet. Since then it has circled Mercury more than 4,100 times, compiling more data in the process than everything combined before that.

The moon visits the Beehive Cluster and more

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter phase Saturday, shining below and to the left of Jupiter. The moon is near the center of the constellation Cancer.

Equinox divides not only day and night but the seasons, too

The new moon winks from sight Friday, obscuring the sun in a total eclipse as seen in a narrow strip over northern oceans. Only residents of a few scattered islands between northern Great Britain and Greenland will see the full eclipse, but viewers across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa will see a partial eclipse.

Here on earth and in the skies, the seasons are changing fast

While our bodies are getting used to the hour shift brought about by Daylight Saving Time, Mother Nature is working fast to counter our dark mornings, and within a month day break will come at the same time it did before we switched our clocks.     At no other point in the year do the days grow longer at a faster pace, as we gain more than three minutes of sunlight each day here in the Northern Hemisphere. Since solstice, December 21, we have gained more than an hour of sunlight in both the morning and at day’s end.

There’s work overhead on the ISS

Thursday evening the waxing gibbous moon stands above the constellation Orion, appearing as if it were the hunter’s head in profile. The next night it is above and to the left of Betelgeuese, Orion’s shoulder, and the two form a nice line with Rigel, the hunter’s foot. Saturday Luna is below the twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, and above Procyon, the lead star in the constellation Canis Minor, the Little Dog. Off to the east is brilliant Jupiter. Sunday the moon rests in the middle of a triangle formed by Pollux, Procyon and Jupiter.

Mars and Venus together at dusk

An ever-so-thin sliver of moon appears low in the west at evening twilight Thursday briefly before sinking beneath the horizon. The Evening Star Venus blazes above and to the moon’s left, with much fainter Mars just above Venus.     Sunset Friday finds the two-day-old crescent moon within two degrees of Venus and Mars, all so close they easily fit within the eyepiece of binoculars and modest backyard telescopes.

Join the fight for dark skies

The waning crescent moon rises ever later in predawn skies this week. Friday it appears before 3am, and by 5am it is well placed above the southeast horizon, forming a tight triangle with golden Saturn to the right and red Antares, the heart of Scorpius, below. The ringed planet stands above the scorpion’s head, one degree of its uppermost, second-magnitude star Graffias.

Lovejoy awaits at the edge of sight

Lovejoy awaits at the edge of sight

Can you spot the naked-eye five?

As the sun sets, look to the southwest for Venus. With a clear view of the horizon, you might spy Mercury below and to the right of Venus at week’s end, but the innermost planet’s viewing days are numbered. Roughly 15 degrees above Venus, look for the ruddy glow of Mars.

Even invisible, it tugs our tides mightily

Look for the waning crescent moon in the southeast before dawn Friday. Golden Saturn is just a couple degrees above, while fiery Antares is less than 10 degrees below. The trio rises around 4am, and by 6am they are well placed above the southeast horizon.