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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

While its glow overwhelms some objects, it points to others

Friday’s full moon is commonly called the Grass Moon and the Egg Moon. As the first full moon following vernal equinox, this is also the Paschal Moon, used to pinpoint the dates of Passover and Easter.

Perched above the equator, the sun splits the day between light and dark

As darkness settles, Venus and Jupiter blaze in the west, and with the moon absent there is no brighter objects visible. After drawing together for weeks, Venus has pulled ahead. At week’s end they are four degrees apart, and the distance grows by about a half-degree each night. Both planets are climbing higher into view, heading from Aries toward Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster.

Venus and Jupiter are at their best, and the moon isn’t too shabby, either

As the sun dips toward the horizon, Venus and Jupiter appear high in the west. Venus, the brighter of the two, shines roughly five degrees below Jupiter at week’s end, but that gap is closing fast. They reach their nearest on Tuesday, shining side by side a mere three degrees apart. Visible for almost four hours after sunset, this is the best conjunction of Venus and Jupiter for years to come. After Tuesday, Venus pulls above Jupiter, appearing a little higher each night. Even so, the two remain close together through March.

Our sister planets are at peak display this week

This is a week for watching the planets. Mercury is emerging from the glow of twilight in its best appearance of the year. Higher above, Venus and Jupiter are drawing together on their way to an incredible conjunction. Mars reaches opposition and is at its largest and brightest for the year. Saturn’s there, too, a golden sentinel visible from 10pm until dawn.

How many planets can you spot?

The waxing crescent moon and Mercury appear low in the west-southwest after sunset Thursday. While the moon is easy to spot, Mercury is 10 degrees lower, buried amid twilight’s glow. Your chance to catch the innermost planet hinges between its own setting, around 6:45, and the sun’s glare, which doesn’t give way to full darkness until 7pm. Scanning the horizon with a pair of binoculars will help.

Citizen scientists add to the night sky’s picture

The waning crescent moon rises a few hours before dawn at week’s end, edging closer to the sun before reaching a new phase Tuesday. This week’s dark winter skies coincide with the Great Worldwide Star Count, going on this month through February 21. Sponsored by the GLOBE at Night Foundation, the goal is to enlist 15,000 “citizen scientists” to report their sightings from three constellations, Orion, Leo and Crux. Additional counts go on March 13-22 and April 11-20.

See if you can find Scorpio’s stinger stars Shaula and Lesath

Sunset reveals the two brightest planets, Jupiter, almost overhead, and Venus, high in the southwest. Equipped with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you may be able to spot a third planet, distant Uranus, which appears near Venus.     The moon rises around 8pm Thursday, with ruddy Mars less than 10 degrees away. By 2am, now Wednesday morning, moon and Mars are high in the south, and with sunrise they are above the west horizon. Nearing its closest point to Earth in two years, Mars grows brighter night by night.

It’s all how you divide the year

The first week of February marks a seasonal milestone, as the sun hovers midway between its southernmost point above the Tropic of Capricorn on winter solstice and its position above the equator on vernal equinox. If you think of the year as a compass with the equinoxes and solstices the four cardinal points, then this cross-quarter day — one of four — represent the ordinal points, dissecting our seasons.

Behind this glowing mass of cosmic gas is a stellar nursery

The waning crescent moon reaches new phase Monday, leaving our night skies free of its overpowering glow. As darkness settles and the stars come into view, the familiar outline of Orion is appears above the southeast horizon.     Easily the most recognizable constellation, Orion has marched through the heavens and played a role in the mythology of every civilization and culture on earth.

Regardless of the time, there’s plenty to see

The waning moon rises before midnight Thursday and Friday, with ruddy Mars just a few degrees above. They are high in the south by 4am and in the southwest at dawn.     Monday’s last-quarter moon rises after midnight, just a couple degrees below the bright star Spica. Golden Saturn trails a few degrees to the moon’s east, with the three forming a tight triangle.