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].
The sky is always changing. Some things happen quickly, like a solar eclipse or a meteor. Other changes happen infinitely more slowly, like the rotation of the Milky Way. But many changes take place over weeks and months, and people with short attention spans will miss them, but regular sky watchers can follow the progress. One such event is when the Earth passes Mars.
Right now the Earth is approaching Mars, which orbits the Sun more slowly. The Earth catches and passes Mars every 26 months. When we do, Mars grows brighter night by night as we grow closer, and then Mars fades in brightness as we move on ahead and leave it behind.
We’ll pass Mars on Oct. 6. Notice that Mars is getting brighter week by week; its brightness almost doubles between now and Oct. 6, when it will be even brighter than Jupiter. On Oct. 6, headlines will proclaim that “tonight is the night to look at Mars,” but savvy sky-watchers have been watching it all along.
Even when Mars is at its closest, it’s disappointingly small as seen through a telescope. This week, it’s 42 million miles distant – about 160 times as far as our Moon. Mars rises at 10 p.m. in Pisces, the Fishes, and is more than halfway up the southern sky at 4 a.m. For detailed information, I recommend reading this article from EarthSky.
Elsewhere in the sky, Jupiter and Saturn are one-third of the way up the southern sky as the sky grows dark. Jupiter is brighter than anything else in the evening sky except the Moon, and Saturn is as bright as a typical bright star and is immediately to the left of Jupiter. They are in the eastern part of Sagittarius and east of the Milky Way, which at this time of year stretches from near the south to almost overhead and to the northeast.
Last to appear is Venus, which rises 3 ½ hours before the Sun. It’s brilliant low in the southeast during morning twilight.
The Moon is to the left of Mars on the morning of Sept. 9. On the morning of Sept. 14, the Moon is 5 degrees to the lower left of Venus while the famous Beehive Star Cluster, best seen with binoculars, is just above them. You can see all three together in most binoculars.
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.