What a fascinating assortment of sky sights we have to look for these next two weeks. It starts Tuesday night with the International Space Station gliding quite close in the sky (not close in space) to the moon and Mars, which themselves appear close together and close to the bright star Aldebaran.
The assortment continues with the following:
reddish Mars passing rather near orange Aldebaran after dusk
Mercury shining near brilliant Venus in the morning twilight
one of the biggest asteroids at its brightest and very near a star
and a scheduled rocket launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, that may be visible from New Jersey.
Space Station passes near moon and Mars on Tuesday: The International Space Station has a bright pass Tuesday night — though in a rather bright twilight sky. As seen from South Jersey, the ISS will appear as a bright point of light slowly ascending in the southwest about 8:08 p.m. The ISS glides very close above Mars at about 8:09:13 p.m. and very close above the moon at about 8:09:27 p.m. The space station is especially close to Mars and the moon as seen from Atlantic City.
The ISS then appears highest — quite high — in our sky at 8:10:04 p.m. when it is passing directly over southeastern Virginia. By the time the ISS enters Earth’s shadow and disappears tonight about 8:13:43 p.m. it is hundreds of miles east of Florida and has dimmed and appears only a little above the southeast horizon.
Mars and Aldebaran together at dusk, and Venus and Mercury at dawn this week and next: Facing fairly low in the west about 8:30 and 9 p.m. these next two weeks, you should see a long horizontal line of special sights. You’ll be scanning left to right.
In the southwest is the brightest star, Sirius. In the west is the compact line of three equally bright stars that is Orion’s Belt. In the west-northwest is the bright eye of Taurus the Bull, Aldebaran — and beyond it (even farther to the right) is the tiny dipper of stars called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster.
But the unusual addition to this long arrangement of stars is found to the right or upper right of Aldebaran — the planet Mars. Mars is on the far side of its orbit from us now and therefore much dimmer than it often is — in fact, considerably dimmer than Aldebaran. The angular width of your fist seen at arm’s length is about 10 degrees. Aldebaran and Mars are 7 degrees or less apart from this Thursday through next Wednesday.
Meanwhile, very low in the east about 5:45 a.m., brilliant Venus is easily visible. What’s difficult is finding the much dimmer planet Mercury, to the lower left of Venus in bright morning twilight. You’ll need a view unobstructed basically down to the horizon — and binoculars will help. The gap between Venus and Mercury shrinks from this week to next, reaching a minimum of 41/3 degrees on next Tuesday, April 16.
The asteroid Pallas at best, and near a naked-eye star Wednesday night: The second asteroid ever discovered, and almost tied for second in size (at about 320 miles across), is called Pallas. It requires binoculars and a finder chart to see — refer to skyandtelescope.com for such a chart.
Daytime rocket launch from Virginia: Over the years — in fact, the decades — rocket launches from Wallops Island, Virginia, on the Delmarva peninsula have sometimes been visible and even visually spectacular as seen from South Jersey.
Unfortunately, the next such launch, though of the powerful Antares rocket, is scheduled next Wednesday (April 17) for 4:46 p.m. — in broad daylight. Even so, it’s possible that from here in South Jersey, we’ll see the formation of a white streak from the rocket, pretty low in the south or southeast.
The unmanned rocket is due to be sending cargo up to the International Space Station. However, these launches often get postponed, sometimes multiple times, for minutes or days. So if you want to see the rocket launch a key is to keep checking the status of the flight at nasa.gov/centers/ wallops/home.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.