Stellar Vista Observatory Sky Report: March 22-28

Stock image, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH — The Sky Report is presented as a public service by the Stellar Vista Observatory, a nonprofit organization based in Kanab, Utah, which provides opportunities for people to observe, appreciate and comprehend our starry night sky. Additional information is available online. Send questions and comments to [email protected].

Three planets are out tonight, one in the evening and two in the morning. The evening planet is Mars, which has been in the news because Perseverance recently landed on it and is beginning to go to work exploring its landing site and eventually looking for signs of ancient life. Mars is halfway up the southwestern sky as darkness falls, a few degrees above Aldebaran in Taurus, an orange star which is a hair brighter.

Your eyes don’t see color in low light levels, which is why everything is black and white at night, so the “red” planet Mars and orange star Aldebaran appear basically white unless you magnify them with binoculars – or better yet, a telescope – and trigger the color sensors in your eyes. Ditto for the giant orange star Betelgeuse in Orion to the left of Mars and Aldebaran.

Jupiter and Saturn rise roughly two hours before the sun and are quite low in the southeast. Jupiter is brighter than any star, while Saturn is 1/13th as bright as Jupiter and is 11 degrees (the width of your fist held at arm’s length) to the right of Jupiter.

Venus is behind the sun on Friday and theoretically moves into the evening sky the next night, but it’ll be a few months before it’s far enough from the sun, angle-wise, for us to actually see it. It will slowly become our “evening star” this summer.

The full moon on Sunday is the year’s first so-called “supermoon,” a word recently invented to mark the times when the moon is closer to Earth than average. The moon’s orbit is not perfectly round, and this year at closest (perigee) and farthest (apogee) it is 221,702 and 252,595 miles distant, respectively, a difference of 30,893 miles or 14%. The claim is that the moon looks bigger when it’s 14% closer and it looks special, but this is nothing but hype.

If the two moons were side-by-side you could tell which is larger, but in practice you will never notice from one month to the next which month’s moon is larger or smaller than any other. For some unfathomable reason the news media makes a big deal of it, raising expectations of something special, but of course half the time the moon is closer than average and the difference between “supermoon” and minimoon is too little to ever notice.

Written by JOHN MOSLEY. John Mosley was program supervisor of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for 27 years and is the author of “Stargazing for Beginners” and “Stargazing with Binoculars and Telescopes”. He and his wife live in St. George where he continues to stargaze from his retirement home while serving on the advisory committee for Stellar Vista Observatory.

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