The planet Mars at night is big and bright, deep in the heart of April

Editor’s note: Press play on the SoundCloud track to really get in the Mars mood while you read.

April is the best month in 2014 to see our blushing cosmic neighbor, Mars! And you’ll definitely want to make a trip out to the George Observatory this Saturday for a Mars Viewing Party from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Take a peek at the marvelous Red Planet while you make the best of this opportunity away from city lights, using some great equipment among cheery fellow astro-enthusiasts.

But what makes April 2014 so special? Here are some reasons (and dates) to make sure you take advantage of the best viewing opportunities:

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU

On April 8, Mars reaches opposition, something that only happens every 26 months. This means that Earth (and therefore you and me) will be right in between the Sun and Mars. This creates some great viewing opportunities, since Mars rises as the Sun sets and will be up all night long.

SO CLOSE YOU CAN TASTE IT

Because of their elliptical orbits, Earth and Mars will be at their closest on April 14. If the planets’ orbits were perfectly circular, they would always reach their closest points at opposition. However, since Mars’ orbit is more eccentric (more egg-shaped, less circular) than Earth’s, this point of closest approach is happening just after opposition.

The closer we are to an object in space, the bigger and brighter it appears to us. So as we approach our closest point to Mars, the planet’s luminosity (brightness) will appear to increase.

WANDERING STARS

The word planet derives from the ancient Greek word for “wandering star.” This apparent “wandering,” or retrograde motion, happens whenever Earth reaches opposition with an outer planet, and then passes it due to our orbit closer to the sun. As we approach and then pass Mars, it will appear to move backward in the sky in relation to the stars behind it, then continue on its regular path across the sky.

This retrograde motion was one of the first reasons people began to question the Earth-centered model of the universe. If Earth was at the center of everything, and stars existed in crystal domes above it, why would these planets move differently? No clear reason was apparent until we realized planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun.

So if you keep your eye on Mars this month, you will have the chance to see one of the earliest questions in astronomy for what it really is – and that’s really awesome.

Mapping of Mars’ retrograde motion from Earth’s point of view

For the best chance to catch a glimpse of Mars, make sure you come out to the George Observatory this Saturday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.!

 

Go Stargazing! May Edition

Saturn is the only planet in May 2011 evening skies.  Face south southeast at dusk, and you’ll see Saturn near a star of similar brightness— Spica in Virgo.  Saturn is significantly higher in the sky than Spica and a bit to its right as you face south.  Last month, Earth passed between the Sun and Saturn.  That alignment, called opposition, put Saturn in the sky all night long.  The ringed planet is now well placed for evening viewing, and remains in the evening sky until late September 2011.

mars-06-crop
Mars
Creative Commons License photo credit: chipdatajeffb

The other four naked eye planets are involved in a very close gathering low in the east at dawn.  You will need a clear view all the way to the east northeastern horizon at daybreak to observe this planet massing.  However, the planets do outshine all stars in this general area. If you’re able to observe any points of light just above the horizon as dawn begins, you’re probably seeing the planets.  As of now, Venus and Mercury rise first, with Mercury about a degree under the brighter Venus.  Mars and Jupiter are a bit to their lower left, with Mars a little to the left of Jupiter.  Mars was less that half a degree above Jupiter on May 1, and is now slowly pulling away from it.  Venus and Mercury are moving faster, so they are closing the gap on Mars and Jupiter.

On the morning of May 11, Venus and Mercury will be aligned with Jupiter, with Venus less than one degree from Jupiter.  This is also when the entire grouping is the most compact, with all four planets within six degrees of one another.  By May 21, Mercury and Venus will have caught up with Mars, with Venus just over a degree from the red planet.  After this, Mercury and Venus pull ahead of Mars and thus go deeper into the sun’s glare.  Mars and Jupiter, left behind, remain in the morning sky all summer.

Star Gazing
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

A swath of brilliant winter stars sets in the west at dusk this month.  Orion, the Hunter, is still visible in the west as May begins.  His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  To Orion’s right is Taurus, the Bull, with the star Aldebaran as its eye. Gemini, the Twins, are above Orion.  The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing to the right.  From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica;’ those stars are in the east and southeast at dusk.  Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead in late evening.

As Orion and Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast.  At the same time, Vega, brightest star of the Summer Triangle, appears low in the northeast.  These stars remind us that summer is on the way.

Moon Phases in May 2011:

New Moon                              May 3, 1:50 a.m.

1st Quarter                             May 10, 3:32 p.m.

Full Moon                               May 17, 6:07 a.m.

Last Quarter                          May 24, 1:51 p.m.

Go Stargazing! March Edition

Hubble Images Suggest Rogue Asteroid Smacked Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit:
NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Jupiter leaves the evening sky this month.  For now, you can still observe it in the west at dusk, where it sets by 8:25 on March 1.  It outshines all stars in the sky, so it’s easy to find.  Face west at dusk and look for the brightest thing there.  However, Jupiter is getting a little lower in the sky each evening.  You should be able to follow it until about the middle of the month.  By month’s end, Jupiter is lost in the sun’s glare.  On April 6, it is directly behind the sun from our perspective.

Mercury emerges from behind the sun this month and appears beside Jupiter before Jupiter fades from view.  On March 15, Mercury is about two degrees to the right of Jupiter as they both set in twilight.  As Jupiter becomes lost in the sun’s glare, Mercury remains visible low in the west at dusk for the rest of the month.

Venus remains a dazzling morning star.  It is getting lower in the sky as the angle between the solar system plane and the horizon gets shallower.  Face southeast at dawn, and you can’t miss it.

Saturn is in the southwest at dawn, getting lower in the southwest by month’s end.  This is because at the end of the month, Earth is about to pass between the sun and Saturn.  This alignment, called opposition, puts Saturn in the sky all night long; it rises in the east at dusk and sets in the west at dawn (the precise opposition date is April 3).  As a result, Saturn is also an evening object, rising in the east by 9:00 p.m. on March 1 and by dusk on the 31.

Mars, just past conjunction with the sun, remains lost in the sun’s glare all month.

A swath of brilliant winter stars continues to dominate evening skies.  These stars are now due south at dusk, but shift to the southwest later in the evening.  Orion, the Hunter, is almost due south.  His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  Above Orion is Taurus, the Bull with Aldebaran as its eye. Gemini, the Twins, are to Orion’s upper left.  Leo, the Lion, rises in the east.  The Big Dipper has now fully re-entered the evening sky; it is to the right of the North Star with the handle pointing down.

Below Sirius, just above the southern horizon, is a star second only to Sirius in brightness.  This is Canopus, which marks the keel (bottom) of the legendary ship Argo Navis.  Canopus is so far south, in fact, that most Americans never see it.  From the Gulf Coast, however, Canopus does rise.  March and March are the best months to see it in the evening.

Moon Phases in March 2011:

New Moon                              March 4, 2:46 p.m.

1st Quarter                             March 12, 5:45 p.m.

Full Moon                               March 19, 1:10 p.m.

Last Quarter                          March 26, 7:07 a.m.

At 6:21 p.m. CDT on Sunday, March 20, the sun is overhead at the Earth’s equator, giving everyone in the world the same amount of daylight.  This, then is the vernal equinox, the ‘official’ start of spring.  For us, days have been lengthening since December 21; by now daytime is almost as long as the night.  After March 20, daytime is longer than night for us.  For many people, however, wintry weather continues so long as arctic air masses remain in motion across North America, Europe, and Asia.

Winter time
Creative Commons License photo credit: cvanstane

People in the Southern Hemisphere had their longest days back in December; their days have since shortened to be about equal to the night.  After March 20, night is longer than day down there, so this is their autumnal (fall) equinox.

Sunday, March 13, is the second Sunday in March.  Therefore, Daylight Saving Time begins at 2 that morning (1:59:59 is followed by 3:00:00).  Don’t forget to set your clocks forward one hour on Saturday night, March 12!

Go Stargazing! September Edition

Venus and Mars have left Saturn behind in the night sky (check out my earlier blog on the position of the planets). You can spot the star Spica in between Mars and Venus during this time of year. (Spica is similar to Mars in brightness and closer to Venus than to Mars). 

 Cloud structure in The Venusian atmosphere,
revealed by ultraviolet observations

September is the last full month to observe Venus at dusk. That’s because Venus has by now come around to Earth’s side of the sun on its faster, inner orbit.  Thus, Venus now begins to overtake the Earth, passing between the Earth and sun on October 29.  We’ll therefore see Venus shift farther to the left of Mars and then drop down below it.  In October, Venus exits the evening sky quite quickly as it shifts back towards the sun.  September and October 2010 is an excellent period for observing Venus’ crescent phase in telescopes.  Anytime Venus is on our side of the sun, more of its night side faces us, resulting in a crescent like appearance when magnified.

Saturn is far to the lower right of Venus and Mars as you face west at dusk.  You’ll need a horizon clear of tall buildings and trees to see it before it sets.  You’ll also need to look early in the month, as Saturn is practically behind the sun by month’s end.  

Jupiter dominates this month’s skies.  On Tuesday morning, September 21, Earth aligns with the sun and Jupiter, bringing Jupiter to opposition (because the sun and Jupiter are then on opposite sides of the Earth).  On the night of September 20-21 we see Jupiter rise at sundown and set at sunup—Jupiter is up literally all night long.  During the whole month, though, Jupiter is visible virtually the whole night.  It outshines all stars in the sky, so it’s easy to find.  Face east in late evening or south southwest at dawn to see it.  The planet Uranus is less than one degree above Jupiter this month; the two planets are closest on September 18.

The Big Dipper is setting in the northwest at dusk; you now need a horizon clear of trees and tall buildings to get a good look at it. You can extend the curve of its handle to ‘arc to Arcturus’, which is in the west at dusk tonight.  Arcturus, by the way, is the fourth brightest star we ever see at night, but the brightest one Americans ever see on a September evening.

As the Dipper gets lower, look for five stars in the shape of an ‘M’ directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper’s handle.  This is Cassiopeia, the Queen—the ‘M’ is the outline of her throne.  Her stars are about as bright as the North Star and the stars of the Big Dipper, so she’s not too hard to find. 

星空下的汗腾格里峰 / Mt. Khan Tengri under Galaxy
Creative Commons License photo credit: livepine

High overhead, look for the enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair.   This triangle was up all night long from June to early August, hence its name.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest at dusk.  Sagittarius, the Archer, known for its ‘teapot’ asterism, is to its left.  Between these two star patterns is the center of our Milky Way—the brightest part of that band as wee see it.  On a cloudless night far from the big city, see if you notice the Milky Way glow near the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius. 

Look for the Great Square of Pegasus rising in the east.  The vast stretch of sky under Pegasus is largely devoid of bright stars—ancients called this the ‘Celestial Sea”. 

Moon Phases in September 2010:

Last Quarter                  September 1, 12:22 am, September 30, 10:52 pm

New Moon                       September 8, 5:29 am

1st Quarter                     September 15, 12:49 am 

Full Moon                        September 23, 4:18 am

At 10:13 pm on Wednesday, September 22, the sun is directly overhead at the equator.  As a result, everyone on earth has the same amount of daylight and the same amount of night.  That’s why it is called the equinox (‘equal night’ in Latin).  In the Northern Hemisphere, we’ve seen the days get a little shorter and the midday Sun a little lower each day since June 21.  For us, the season changes from summer to fall at the equinox.  In the Southern Hemisphere, people have seen the days lengthen and the midday Sun get a little higher each day since June.  For them, the season changes from winter to spring.