by William J. Bechaver
EARTH — Though not the brightest, nor the nearest, nor the largest, or the farthest, Mars has to be the highlight of our night sky this week.
Earth is slowly catching up to the red planet, in its longer and slower orbit, and as we do, it climbs higher and shines brighter in the middle of the night.
It enters our night sky just before midnight, and is high overhead before the light of dawn.
It is not hard to see, but it may be easily confused with the bright star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the bull. Both shine red, and both overhead, and only about four degrees separate the two in the night sky right now. Mars lies between the red star and the Pleiades star cluster, but it is easy to discern that Mars is the brightest red dot in the area, the other being the red star.
We are slowly closing in on Mars, but our progress is a lengthy one. But as we approach, Mars brightens slightly, week to week. It is easily outshined by Jupiter, the largest planet, also visible and high, to the west of Mars.
But the entire week, Mars will appear near the bright star of Taurus, slowly moving through the constellation.
The brightest of the planets doesn’t rise until the early morning hours. Venus makes its appearance in the east only an hour before the sun, now, so the sky is already lightening slightly by the time it makes its rise. It is further than Mars right now, but being larger and assisted with reflective clouds of its thick atmosphere, Venus always outshines every other visible planet in the sky, even at its furthest distance.
The furthest of the easily visible planets is Saturn. It progresses further west each night, setting in the early morning hours just before Venus rises. It may be the hardest to pick out amongst the stars, but this week, the moon will join it in the night sky. On Wednesday September 7, the brightening moon will be to the lower right of the distant ringed planet. By Thursday night, it will have passed it by, and Saturn will be to the upper right of the moon. Saturn is speeding away from us, and will dim slightly, just as Mars is brightening.
We are closing in on Jupiter now, so it continues to shine brightly, passing directly overhead during the late night hours. It will reach its best by the end of the month, as we pass it by in its distant orbit.
Mercury is actually the nearest planet to Earth, and the distance between us will continue to diminish. But, unfortunately, as with all inner planets, as it drawn nearer, it sinks closer to the sun. It is almost completely lost in the glare right now setting only forty seven minutes after the sun has gone. In the brightness of the glare in the sky, it is hard to pick out tiny Mercury low on the horizon. And by next week, when it is closer yet, he won’t be seen at all, as the surrounding sky remains too bright as Mercury sets below the western horizon.
So though all three outer planets continue to make a remarkable showing in our sky, Mars is the highlight as it is the closest to be easily viewed, and growing closer every night as we approach it.
But amazingly, a fourth outer planet is about to enter the picture, and with dark skies and a little luck for perfect viewing conditions, we just may be able to pick Uranus out of the stars in the weeks to come.
With our dark skies here, they only need to be clear, so keep your eyes on the skies from sunset to sunrise.
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Astronomical times and distances of naked-eye objects for this weekend:
Sun Set = 7:25 p.m.
10 minutes earlier than last week
93.756 million miles from Earth
155,551 miles nearer than last week
Mercury Set = 8:12 p.m.
19 minutes earlier than last week
76.005 million miles from Earth
9,708,681 miles nearer than last week
Mercury sets 47 minutes after the sun
Jupiter Rise = 8:26 p.m.
29 minutes earlier than last week
373.827 million miles from Earth
4,669,704 miles nearer than last week
Mars Rise = 11:22 p.m.
15 minutes earlier than last week
87.232 million miles from Earth
3,744,828 miles nearer than last week
Moon Set = 11:44 p.m.
44 minutes later than last night
230,729 miles from Earth
2,041 miles nearer than last night
14,931 miles nearer than last week
Saturn Set = 4:50 a.m.
30 minutes earlier than last week
828.919 million miles from Earth
3,210,520 miles further than last week
Venus Rise = 5:28 a.m.
16 minutes later than last week
154.871 million miles from Earth
1,610,133 miles further than last week
Venus rises 63 minutes before the sun
Sun Rise = 6:31 a.m.
5 minutes later than last week
93.746 million miles from Earth
10,806 miles nearer than last night
156,839 miles nearer than last week
First Quarter Moon occurs on Saturday, September 3, at 12:07 p.m. We’ve lost 16 minutes of daylight since last week, and a full 67 minutes since last month. Our nearest planetary neighbor currently is Mercury.
Note: Times are local Mountain Time. Actual “sundown” is about a dozen minutes earlier than calculated “sunset”. Along the front range, differing times vary depending on your distance from the mountains.
William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.