The late Winter sky is still ablaze with an abundance of bright stars and famous constellations. Orion is still with us, including its famous nebula “M42” in its sword. During this month’s “Gateway to the Stars” we’ll be taking a closer look at the Orion Nebula this month, but the real treat is with the planets.
Mars is at “opposition” on March 3, the very day of our show! “Opposition” refers to the point where a planet appears exactly opposite of the sun in the sky, which means Mars will rise in the east at the same time the sun is setting in the west. This is also when the planet is at its closest to the Earth, which for Mars happens about every 2 years. Some of these close approaches are better than others because the orbits of Earth and Mars are not perfect circles – they are slightly elliptical. The best of the close approaches happens about every 16 years (called a “perihelic opposition”). That’s when Mars can get as close as 35 million miles to Earth. The last one happened in 2003. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst oppositions with Mars coming within 63 million miles of our planet. That means the apparent size of Mars’ disk will look a little smaller in a telescope than other close encounters, but it’s still definitely worth a look! Most of the time, Mars looks like a tiny orange dot even in a moderate sized telescope. But close approaches like these (good ones or not) give you a greater chance of seeing a hint of detail on the Martian surface, provided the skies are dark, Mars is high in the sky, and you have a moderate telescope (filters are even available to show better detail). Mars will look best at 11pm or so, when it’s approaching the top of the sky.
Just a week ago there was a beautiful arrangement of the crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter in the western sky. Camera shutters were snapping all over the world for that “conjunction.” But Venus and Jupiter are still approaching each other in the sky! Watch the western sky on the early evenings of March 13, 14 and 15 as the two planets come within about 3 degrees of each other (that’s the equivalent of holding your forefinger and middle finger together at arms length).
Come and get a preview of these planetary and celestial sights this weekend! Showtime is Saturday, March 3 at 6:45 pm in the Hansen Dome Theatre.
Tickets for this presentation are $1 at the ticket window or $2 online. Members are free.