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A Fantastic Monday Morning Sky Show

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Nov. 2 , 2007: This is worth waking up for.

On Monday morning, Nov. 5th, anyone willing to step outside before dawn will see a fantastic display of stars and planets—and maybe a couple of spaceships, too.

see captionThe planets: Venus, Saturn and Mars.

Venus is the extravagantly luminous "star" hanging low in the east. You can’t miss it—especially because the crescent Moon is hanging nearby. The closely-spaced pair is as lovely as anything you will ever see in the heavens.

Right: Venus and the crescent Moon. Photo credit: Zhen Jie of Singapore. July 17, 2007.

If you can, tear your eyes away from Venus and the Moon. Just above them hangs Saturn, a delicate yellow beauty that cries out for the attention of your telescope; even small 'scopes reveal Saturn's breathtaking rings. And above Saturn, almost directly overhead, shines Mars. It is bright, distinctly orange, and for reasons science cannot fully explain, a little hypnotic.

The stars: Too many to name!

You won't be the only one looking at the planets. Orion the Hunter is there, too, outlined in the sky by an hour-glass of first and second magnitude stars. Joining Orion is Castor, Pollux, Regulus, Aldebaran and brightest of all, Sirius, the blue-white Dog Star: sky map This stellar sprawl frames the planets in a scene guaranteed to spellbind—that is, until something comes along to break the spell.

That would be the spaceships: Space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station (ISS).

The two orbiters are due to fly over many US towns and cities on Monday morning. If things go according to plan, Discovery will undock from the ISS at 5:32 am EST (updates), which means the two ships will appear as distinct points of bright light, side-by-side, gliding together past Mars, Sirius, Orion, Venus and the Moon. Check NASA's Skywatch web site for spotting times.

What comes next may strain the credulity of some readers, but it is true. In addition to the stars, planets, spaceships and lunar close encounters, there is also an exploding comet:

see caption

Above: Comet Holmes photographed on Nov. 2nd by Tom Davis of Salisbury, North Carolina, using a 4.5 inch refracting telescope. [More]

Comet 17P/Holmes burst into view last week when something happened to the comet's core—a collapse, a fracture, a comet-quake? No one knows!—causing the comet to surge in brightness almost a million-fold. It is now visible to the unaided eye as an expanding fuzzball in the constellation Perseus similar in brightness to the stars of the Big Dipper. To find the comet, first face Mars and then spin around 180-degrees: sky map. It's a must-see target for backyard telescopes.

Nov. 5th: Set your alarm!

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

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