By FRED SCHAAF
For the Press
The next two weeks bring some of the strongest displays of the planets. What do I mean?
The brightest planet (Venus) is at its brightest. The most colorful planet (Mars) is at possibly its most colorful. What is often the most gloriously easy planet to see (Jupiter) is at its most conveniently visible.
Other special sights for skygazers these next few weeks include Mars passing by a bright star and, for advanced observers, a supernova (exploding star) in one of our most impressive neighboring galaxies.
Jupiter high and bright in the evening. Let’s start with Jupiter. What’s especially good this month is that Jupiter is already pretty high in the east as night falls, and very high later. The higher a planet is in the sky, the more likely you’ll get a steady image of it in a telescope.
But Jupiter looks great even just with the unaided eye this month. It easily outshines all other points of light in the evening sky and is surrounded by the brightest constellations this winter. Look not far to the left of Jupiter and you’ll see Pollux and slightly dimmer Castor, the brightest stars of Gemini.
Also watch later this week as the growing moon gets closer to Jupiter each night. The closest pairing of Jupiter and the moon (not very close but still impressive) comes this Sunday, when the moon already is more than half lit. And, early this Friday evening look very close under the moon, and you should see the star Aldebaran, which marks the eye of Taurus the Bull.
Mars brightening and colorful. Can you stay up late? Mars rises around 11 p.m. today but around 10:15 p.m. by two weeks from now.
The earlier rising of Mars continues until, in April, this world comes up at sunset and shines at its brightest and biggest.
But Mars already is getting pretty impressive, now rivaling the brilliance of Arcturus, the brightest star of the oncoming spring constellations. Arcturus rises in the northeast, far to the left of Mars, which rises in the east. But there are three exciting ways to distinguish Mars from Arcturus these next few weeks.
The first way is by twinkling. Stars usually twinkle far more than planets do. Mars should shine much steadier than Arcturus.
The second way is by color. Arcturus often is said to look slightly orange. But when Mars is bright, most people can notice that it shines with a much deeper orange-gold hue. I like to say that the light of Mars is campfire-colored. And I have a theory that when Mars reaches its current brightness — or a little brighter — its color is most distinct.
The third way to distinguish Mars from Arcturus is by Mars having a fairly close companion in the sky this month, and especially this week. The companion is the bright and blue-white star Spica.
Spica is considerably less bright than Arcturus.
But this week, the separation between Mars and Spica is only about one-half the width of your fist held out at arm’s length. Such a pairing is called a “conjunction,” and there will be two more between Mars and Spica in the months ahead: one in late March and another, much tighter one, in July.
Earth is catching up to Mars in their orbital race. Earth gets 19 million miles closer to Mars during February. By month’s end, it easily outshines Arcturus.
Venus and a supernova. If you are looking low in the east out your window between 5 and 6 a.m. these next few weeks, you may be able to see the brightest planet flaming at its peak brilliance. That planet is Venus.
A few times in each millennium, Earth is briefly treated to a supernova in our galaxy that shines even brighter than Venus in our skies.
For now, observers with telescopes will have to settle for a supernova in another galaxy, the strange-looking galaxy called M82. If you are an experienced observer you can go to www.skyandtelescope.com to get a finder chart for the galaxy and its exploding star.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.