Spring officially begins at 1:32 p.m. Saturday in the northern hemisphere.
Of course, this does not guarantee we won't have any more cold weather. But in this transition week, we can follow the moon as it cruises past bright Venus and the lovely Pleiades star cluster. And we can watch the moon itself get passed, closely in the sky, by the international space station, or ISS.
The moon and returning Venus: This week, brilliant Venus returns to the evening sky after a months-long absence. Tonight and Wednesday night, if clear, are especially good times to spot the still-low planet because it will be passed by a remarkably slender sliver of moon.
Tonight, make sure you can see almost all the way to the west horizon, and start looking for Venus and the moon between 7:30 and 7:45 p.m. You may spot Venus' point of light first. Binoculars may help locate the fine filament of moon less than one width of your fist at arm's length to the slightly lower right of Venus. As the sky darkens, you should be able to see the lunar crescent with the unaided eye.
On Wednesday night, a thicker but still slender moon will be much higher - well to the upper right of Venus - and easier to spot.
On Thursday night, the moon is far from Venus - but almost right above the planet.
A spacecraft passes by: On Saturday night, the moon is a much thicker crescent and hangs quite high in the southwest. At about 8 p.m., assuming skies are clear, you will see with binoculars the little dipper shape of the Pleiades star cluster extremely close to the upper right of the moon. Telescopes will show the moon passing in front of a few of the clusters' dimmer outlying stars later in the evening. At 8:16 p.m., viewers in southern New Jersey will get to see the brilliant international space station glide close by the moon.
The ISS will not really be close to the moon in space - the moon is a few hundred times farther away but is in the same line of sight. But the apparent close encounter will still be dramatic. The ISS will creep up the western sky for more than a minute, pass the moon and then brush near the stars Aldebaran (bright and orange eye of Taurus the Bull) and Betelgeuse (even brighter star of Orion the Hunter). At 8:18 p.m., the ISS passes into Earth's shadow, fading from view in the south-southeast.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: