This week, the planet named for the Roman god of war gets closer and closer to the star that is supposed to represent the heart of Leo the Lion. The planet is Mars, the star is Regulus, and the two of them will come closest to each other in the sky Sunday and Monday.
But the Mars-Regulus conjunction, or meeting, is just the first of many fine pairings and gatherings of planets, stars and the moon that will occur this summer. Another sight to look forward to is the great Perseid meteor shower.
A summer of fine sights: This summer offers us a seasonlong drama in the west to southwest sky after nightfall. The outstandingly bright light is that of the planet Venus, which you can easily find at dusk in the west. But Venus is merely the right end of a long yet contracting line of planets and stars. By 9:30 to 10 p.m., the sky is dark enough this month to see the following objects strung to the upper left of Venus in the southwest: Mars and Regulus, Saturn and the bright star Spica. Interestingly, Mars, Regulus, Saturn and Spica all shine at similar brightness (tremendously dimmer than Venus).
Mars will pass just above Regulus in the next week or so and then start closing the gap on Saturn, still well to the left. Meanwhile, Venus will move fastest of all through the zodiac constellations. It will soon leave Gemini, go through Cancer and have its own conjunction with Regulus in the second week of July. As July ends, Mars will pass Saturn, and Venus will move in to form a small triangle with them. In the final stages, Venus will zoom by slow Saturn and catch Mars in the third week of August.
So what should we look for from the Mars-Regulus show this week? By Thursday, even your little finger at arm's length will cover both Mars and, directly to its left, the slightly dimmer Regulus. On Sunday and Monday evenings, the two will be about four times closer together - less than a half-degree apart. If you have a telescope, you can fit the two together even at rather high magnification and see the now quite small globe of Mars. On Monday, Mars will appear directly above Regulus.
Notice how Regulus twinkles a lot more than Mars. Can you detect their very different colors with the unaided eye or binoculars? When they get close, the blue-white of Regulus and the orange-gold of Mars are accentuated by their contrast with each other.
Next week: Venus will line up perfectly with the two bright stars of Gemini, Pollux and Castor. And in the hours before dawn, the first in a series of rare, amazing conjunctions will occur: Jupiter, which recently lost its strongest cloud band for the first time in about 18 years, will be paired with blue, distant planet Uranus.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: