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 remains the sole planet visible tonight, and you can easily see it high in the southwest as darkness falls. It remains visible until it sets after midnight. Mars is brighter – and oranger – than any star in the area, so you’ll have no trouble identifying it.
Three spacecraft reach Mars this month: an orbiter from the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, a combination orbiter-lander-rover from China on Wednesday and the Perseverance rover from the United States on Feb. 18. All three were launched last July – so why launch then, and why arrive now?
It’s because even at the speed that interplanetary spacecraft travel – 40,000 miles per hour or 19 miles per second – it takes six to seven months to arrive. You have to lead your target, like a duck hunter, and aim ahead. Mars was closest to Earth last October, so the idea is to split the difference: Launch your spacecraft so it’s halfway there when your target is closest, and then the total distance traveled is minimized. (Mars is presently 124 million miles distant, three times as far as in October.) Our Perseverance rover, by the way, carries the first interplanetary drone.
Last week, I mentioned that there are three bright red (actually, orange) stars that rival Mars in color. Two aren’t too distant from it. Aldebaran and Betelgeuse are in the “winter” sky and they’re out this evening, while the third, Antares, is in the “summer” sky and you can see it in the southeast shortly before sunrise. Although it’s definitely winter now, the stars of the spring sky rise late in the evening and the stars of the summer sky rise before dawn. Stars of the “season” sky refer to the stars you see in the evening that “season.”
There’s a nice conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on Thursday morning, but you won’t see it. That’s a shame – the two brightest planets are less than half a degree apart, which is the diameter of the moon, but they’re only 5 degrees above the horizon at the moment of sunrise. Conjunctions often happen when the planets are too close to the sun to be observed. People with computer-controlled telescopes might look for them later that morning in daylight.
The moon is new on Thursday. You’ll see it return to the evening sky as a crescent beginning two days later, when it’s low in the west during evening twilight.
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.