Say goodbye as Mars bows out gracefully

For many people, the best view they saw of Mars ended in August,
when the Red Planet was its closest to Earth in some 50,000 years.
But their big mistake was they thought the good views of Mars were
all over. Although Mars has grown smaller and has faded
significantly since August, it still remains a bright object
throughout the early months of 2004 and is still an interesting
target for your backyard telescopes. Although it may be a little
tricky to make out any surface marking in the smaller telescopes,
say 8

and smaller.
For many people, the best view they saw of Mars ended in August, when the Red Planet was its closest to Earth in some 50,000 years. But their big mistake was they thought the good views of Mars were all over. Although Mars has grown smaller and has faded significantly since August, it still remains a bright object throughout the early months of 2004 and is still an interesting target for your backyard telescopes. Although it may be a little tricky to make out any surface marking in the smaller telescopes, say 8″ and smaller.

The reason Mars is getting so small in size is that the Earth’s orbit is closer to the sun and moving faster than Mars is in its orbit around the sun. Therefore, we are pulling steadily away, making Mars look smaller and smaller with each setting sun.

Along its journey, Mars meets up with some interesting objects in the sky. Watch after sunset Jan. 27 with the first quarter moon lying just 3 degrees south of Mars. By March 19, when Mars has faded to magnitude 1.3, it passes less than 3 degrees south of the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus the Bull. On the same night, Venus, easily outshining the Red Planet, lies 14 degrees to the lower right of Mars. A nice photo opportunity occurs March 25 when a slim crescent moon is within two moon-widths from Mars.

Mars and Venus continue their journey across Taurus and on April 23, an even smaller crescent moon lies only 3 degrees above Mars , with Venus standing nearby at the eastern end of Taurus. Trying very hard, Venus never quite catches up with Mars and during May, Venus falls back toward the sun while Mars continues to delay its departure.

Although the great 2003/2004 show of Mars is coming quickly to a close, observers will be talking about it for many years to come. And the many people who didn’t get the chance to see Mars at its best will forever wonder – what did they really miss.

Daytime viewing: Most people figure the only heavenly bodies they will be able to see in the daytime are the sun and the moon. Well, the other day, Dec. 15 to be exact, I was up feeding my swans early in the morning as the sun was just rising. I happened to look up at the moon just overhead. Just as the astronomy books predicted, the moon was only 4 degrees north of Jupiter. Here was the sun shining brightly and the largest planet in our solar system was shining brightly as well, at least bright enough to be able to be seen in daylight with the unaided eye. But as time went on, around noon or so, I lost eye contact with Jupiter as it moved away from the moon.

I was feeling quite good about what I had just seen that morning, but then I was about to glance upon yet another object in the western sky later that afternoon. Here again the sun was still shining as bright as it could be, having another hour before it would set for the evening. I was looking at an object even brighter than Jupiter had been just that morning. Knowing it couldn’t be Jupiter, for it had already set below the horizon by that time, it had to be none other than our sister planet, Venus. Sure enough, outshining everything in the sky, except the sun, moon and a few unusual weird happenings, Venus was out there at her best.

Most people think it is an oncoming airplane at first, until they notice that it just stands there, not going anywhere.

So if you are just not a night person, there are things for you to see in the daytime sky other than the sun and moon, if you know when and where to look.

Hope everyone had a good holiday. Clear skies.

January Sky Watch

Jan. 3 – Moon passes 3 degrees south of Pleiades

Jan. 3 – Moon is farthest away from Earth (apogee – 252,095 miles)

Jan. 4 – Earth is nearest the sun (perihelion – 91,400,177 miles)

Jan. 4 – Quadrantid meteor shower peaks (best between 1 a.m. and dawn)

Jan. 6 – Eastern Orthodox Christmas, based on a tradition that Jesus was born 12 days after the winter solstice, which was regarded as being Dec. 25.

Jan. 6 – Moon passes 5 degrees north of Saturn

Jan. 7 – Full moon, called “Old Moon in January”

Jan. 12 – Moon passes 3 degrees north of Jupiter

Jan. 14 – Moon passes .9 degrees south of Uranus

Jan. 14 – Last-quarter moon

Jan. 14 – First day of the Roman year 2757 A.U.C. (ab urbe condita – “from the city’s founding”)

Jan. 19 – Moon passes 5 degrees south of Mercury

Jan. 19 – Moon is closest to the Earth (perigee – 225,415 miles)

Jan. 21 – New moon

Jan. 23 – Moon passes 4 degrees south of Uranus

Jan. 24 – Crescent moon passes 4 degrees south of Venus

Jan. 27 – Moon passes 3 degrees south of Mars

Jan. 29 – First quarter moon

Jan. 31 – Moon is farthest from Earth (apogee – 251,536 miles)

Dave Baumgartner is a Hollister resident and an avid amateur astronomer. His Sky Watch column appears each month.

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