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Brighten your night

After witnessing a horrific week for humanity in Iraq, Virginia and Texas, we're in the midst of brighter days for celebrating the natural world: You all know that Sunday is Earth Day, of course – but that’s not all: Saturday is Astronomy Day, and observatories and skywatching clubs around the world are planning a constellation of events to introduce newbies to the joys of the sky. We're also in the middle of National Dark-Sky Week. And then there’s Tuesday, the 17th birthday for the Hubble Space Telescope.

My advice? Step away from the doom and gloom, go outside and see the sights.

This week, for example, we've been enjoying a nice alignment of the new moon and Venus, plus the Pleiades star cluster. One of the neatest aspects of the sight is being able to make out the dark disk of the moon, faintly illuminated by Earthshine. If you were clouded out, you can see some online highlights from by clicking through this directory.

Venus isn't the only planet visible in the night sky: If you look eastward along the ecliptic, you can also catch Saturn - and its mysterious moon Titan as well, if you have a small telescope. In the wee hours of the morning, Mars and Jupiter make their appearance. Sky & Telescope provides the full details for this week's sky observing.

Three space fliers - including NASA's Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian space golfer Mikhail Tyurin as well as billionaire passenger Charles Simonyi - are returning to Earth from the international space station on Saturday, and this weekend happens to be a good time to spot the station moving through post-sunset skies over the United States. You can check your local timetable at NASA's sighting guide - and Heavens Above will even draw you a sky map, customized for your locality.

Astronomy Day is a traditional time for astronomical societies to stage public sky showings, and Astronomy magazine has partnered up with museums and observatories across the country for 28 special events on Saturday night. But that's not all: The Astronomical League lists scores of activities in the United States and 21 other countries.

This weekend is also the peak time for the Lyrid meteor shower. Assuming that the skies are clear, your best opportunity should come early Sunday, after midnight - perhaps after the Astronomy Day star party. You could see 10 to 20 Lyrids an hour, with somewhat fewer each night as the week wears on. If you miss the Lyrids, don't fret: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is coming right behind.

As if all this weren't enough, reports that an auroral show may be in the works for this weekend, thanks to a solar wind stream heading our way. Folks in northern climes such as Alaska or Scandinavia are best positioned to see the lights in their full glory, but if you're out of the aurora zone, SpaceWeather's online gallery is the next-best thing to being there.

Speaking of online delights, you can always take a virtual tour of the universe by clicking through our space slide shows. A fresh offering of Earth snapshots taken by astronauts should get you in just the right mood for Earth Day.