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].
Mars is in the news this week because it is now closest to Earth, so it’s at its biggest and brightest. The moment it comes closest is 8:19 a.m. on Tuesday, when it is 38,568,243 miles away. The news media will play up Tuesday and advise you to look at it this night, but in reality Mars will look the same for a few weeks as it slowly begins to fade as the faster-moving Earth leaves it behind. Mars comes this close only every 26 months, so enjoy it now.
Next week you’ll hear that “Mars is at opposition” – it’s opposite the sun in the sky. Although an orbital milestone, this is not as significant as Mars’s closest approach.
Mars rises shortly after sunset and by midnight, it’s well up in the southeast. It’s the brightest object in the night sky other than the moon – and Venus after it rises – and it’s presently slightly brighter than Jupiter (which sets by 1 a.m.). You can’t miss the red planet’s orange color, which caused many earlier peoples to associate it with blood and war but which is actually caused by oxidized, or rusted, minerals on the surface.
Mars is disappointing through all but the most expensive home telescopes. It’s only twice the size of our moon but is 160 times as far away, so you have to magnify it 80 times for it to appear as large as our moon does to your naked eye. Your telescope optics must be excellent and the air steady to see even the major surface markings. Astronomy apps like SkySafari will show you which features face Earth at any given time.
Mars will fade in the months to come but remains visible in the evening sky through next spring, fading week by week. The earth will next catch Mars on Dec. 1, 2022. For additional information, Google “Mars opposition 2020”.
Elsewhere in the sky, Jupiter and Saturn are one-third of the way up the southern sky at 8 p.m.; Jupiter is brighter than any star while fainter Saturn is to the left. Venus rises in the east after 4 a.m. and is brilliant through morning twilight. Venus is four times brighter than Mars and is pure white in color. The star above Venus is Regulus, in Leo.
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.