Stellar Vista Observatory Sky Report for Nov. 28 – Dec. 4

Stellar Vista Observatory Sky Report
John Mosley

Nov. 28 – Dec. 4

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 at Send questions and comments to [email protected].

Every 26 months the earth catches and passes Mars, which, being more distant from the sun, moves slower in its orbit. On Nov. 30 we’re as close to Mars as we will come this time around, and then Mars is 50 million miles distant. Mars has been getting brighter and rising earlier, and now it’s visible all night long. It’s the third brightest thing in the night sky, after the moon and Jupiter. Mars is in Taurus, north of Orion, centered in the part of the sky with the most bright stars. Its yellow-orange color helps identify it.

Mars lies precisely opposite the sun on Dec. 8 when it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, but in practice, it does this now. Look for it low in the northeast as the sky grows dark, nearly overhead at about 1 a.m., and very low in the northwest as morning twilight begins.
Each time we pass Mars we don’t come equally close to it. Our earth’s orbit is out of round by 3% but Mars’ orbit is out of round by 9%.

This month it is 50,612,000 miles from earth – which is not especially close. At closest, Mars can be 34,621,000 miles distant, as in 2003; its most distant when closest is 63,017,000 miles as in 2027.

Mars is twice the actual diameter of our moon (roughly 4,000 vs. 2,000 miles) but 200 times more distant, so it appears tiny through a telescope. The diameter of our moon is 1800 inches (arcseconds) vs 17 inches for Mars, so it’s disappointingly small, having the apparent size of a small lunar crater. Even when it is closer, as in 2003, its diameter is only 25 inches. It takes an uncommonly good telescope to see markings on its surface. Unfortunately, there is (yet) no public observatory in southern Utah where you can go to see Mars for yourself.

Two other planets are out tonight. The brightest is Jupiter, which is twice as bright as Mars. Jupiter sits halfway up the southern sky at the end of evening twilight, which is the best time to look at it through a telescope, and it sets soon after midnight. The bright gibbous moon is less than 3 degrees below Jupiter on the evening of Nov. 1 in a beautiful pairing of the two brightest objects in the night sky; you can easily see both together in binoculars. Jupiter is 1800 times as distant as the moon.

And Saturn is still there too, although not for long. It (and all the planets) sets one-half hour earlier each week and we’ll lose it soon after the New Year. Look for it one-third of the way up the southwest sky as twilight ends, 40 degrees from Jupiter, and it sets two hours before Jupiter does. The crescent moon is 6 degrees below Saturn on Monday evening and they will fit together in the field of view of most binoculars. Saturn is 4130 times as distant as the moon.

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