Are you ready for the spectacular red planet, Mars? Tonight it will be in prime viewing position!
No, it will NOT be as big as the full Moon. Seriously, if you ever say that around here we may cry. (I ranted about it years ago…)
BUT that doesn’t mean you aren’t in for a treat. When a planet is at opposition, this means that it is the furthest it can possibly be from the Sun in our sky. That puts it in prime viewing position all night. This particular opposition, Mars is pretty close to us, reaching a mere 92.39 million km away just a few nights later on April 14th.
The difference between tonight and the 14th or any other night his month is very slight, so don’t worry if you get rained out. In fact, I got my first view of Mars (of the year) last weekend at our local version of the Global Star Party. It made a very pretty red circle in our department’s 8-inch telescope, though the seeing was pretty bad so we didn’t see any other features.
This isn’t quite as close or as big as the “BIG” closest approach we had in 2003, the one that spawned those horrible emails but also my role with nighttime astronomy outreach. That year we dragged out the department’s big Dobsonian telescope and could really see light and dark features, as well as the polar cap. Don’t worry if you missed that one, though, as the viewing will be almost as good in July of 2018.
Don’t let Mars be your only stop on a tour through the night sky, however. Jupiter, the Moon, the Orion Nebula, and the Double Cluster in Perseus are all in prime viewing spots for the early evening and are some of my favorite objects to spot. I actually got to have the thrill of showing all of these to a group who had never looked through a telescope before and they LOVED it. If only Saturn had been up, their socks may have actually been knocked off. If you’re not familiar with sky maps, use a friendly app to guide your way through the sky.
Or if your weather is really crummy, join Astronomers Without Borders for an online observing event tonight at 23:00 GMT or the Virtual Star Party on Sunday nights. Happy planet watching and clear skies!