Moon and Company

StarDate: April 26, 2009

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An impressive array of companions surrounds the crescent Moon early this evening. The lineup includes a planet that's putting in one of its best appearances of the year.

Mercury is a little below the Moon as the sky begins to darken. It's pretty low, so you need a clear western horizon to spot it. But it looks like a bright star -- the first one to fade into view in that direction -- so it's easy to pick out.

Mercury is actually one of our closest planetary neighbors. But it's the closest planet to the Sun, so most of the time we can't see it through the Sun's glare. But when the geometry is just right, it climbs far enough away from the Sun to put in a pretty good showing.

As the sky gets a little darker, the Pleiades star cluster becomes visible between the Moon and Mercury. It looks like a tiny dipper. None of its stars is all that impressive on its own, but together they form one of the most prominent objects in the night sky.

The Pleiades is part of the constellation Taurus. The bull's bright orange "eye" -- the star Aldebaran -- is to the left of the Moon. It stands at one of the points of a V-shaped pattern formed by another star cluster, the Hyades. Aldebaran itself isn't part of the cluster -- it's only about half as far away. But it's in just the right spot to complete the face -- part of a widespread bull that tonight surrounds the crescent Moon.

Tomorrow: living in a tough neighborhood.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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