All that snow we've had has been making it hard to get out and observe the heavens. This week's two most unusual sights are challenging ones even without snowbanks. But another heavenly sight- the planet Mars - is easy to see and has a special connection with today's holiday, Mardi Gras.
Venus and Jupiter's ultra-close meeting: Last week, I talked about how Venus and Jupiter, the brightest planets, were approaching each other for a rare close meeting, or conjunction. The problem, I said, was that the two planets set so soon after sunset that we had to try to spot them very low in a sky still bright with the sun's afterglow, and binoculars would be necessary to see them.
That is still the case tonight but the incentive to look is great: Venus and Jupiter are at their closest tonight. You will need a view unblocked virtually all the way to the west-southwest horizon, almost precisely straight down (far down) from tonight's crescent moon. You will also need to be looking at about 6 p.m.
If the sky is clear enough, you can see with binoculars the dimmer Jupiter as a point of light a little more than a half-degree to the upper right of Venus. A telescope with medium magnification will show the globes of both worlds together in a single field of view.
Each night this week, Venus will get higher and Jupiter lower. In a few days, Jupiter will be lost in sunset.
Asteroid in the lion's mane: The asteroids that make up the asteroid belt in our solar system are rocky worlds smaller than planets which, in most cases, can be found between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
The asteroid that is tied for second-biggest at about 300 miles in diameter is the one that can become the brightest in our sky (mostly because its surface is unusually light-colored and reflective). This asteroid is called Vesta and tonight, it is not only at opposition (opposite the sun in the sky and thus visible all night long), it is at about its closest and brightest for the year. And it is also shining right in the tiny gap between two important stars in Leo the Lion.
This time, Vesta is a bit too dim to see with the naked eye for most people. But with binoculars or a telescope, you can see it between those two stars, one of which is Algieba, the second-brightest in Leo the Lion. For a map and instructions on how to find it in the sky, visit:
Mardi Gras and Mars: Today is Mardi Gras - French for "Fat Tuesday." But why is Tuesday "Mardi" in French? Because it comes from the Latin words martis diem - the day of the planet Mars. I will have more about the planets and their connections to the days of the week in upcoming columns. But for now, you can celebrate Mardi Gras partly by checking out the bright, steady, orange-gold point of light well up in the east sky after nightfall. That light is Mars.
Pluto anniversary: Want another astronomical day to celebrate? Thursday is the 80th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, which in 2006 was demoted as a planet.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: