Jimmy Westlake: Red planet, red moon
April 1, 2014
Move over, Jupiter. There's another bright planet poised to enter our evening sky in early April. You might already have noticed it, hovering over the eastern mountains about 10 p.m. It's the planet Mars, and the Earth is rapidly approaching Mars for the closest approach we've had in six years.
Mars is the second outer planet to reach opposition in 2014. Jupiter was closest to Earth on Jan. 5 and it still dominates our evening sky, high up overhead as darkness falls.
Earth requires 780 days to gain a lap on Mars and pass between it and the sun for an opposition, but because of Mars' very eccentric orbit, some oppositions are closer and more favorable than others. This year's opposition is not a very close one. When Mars reaches opposition Tuesday, it will be 58 million miles from Earth.
During a favorable opposition, like we had in 2003, Mars can come as close as 36 million miles. Even so, from 58 million miles away, Mars will be one of the brightest objects in our night sky, and its rusty color will make it unmistakable.
Mars shines down on us from the constellation of Virgo this spring, not far from the bright blue star Spica. As April opens, Mars will appear about 5 degrees north of Spica, but watch as the month progresses, and you'll see Mars rapidly pull away from Spica as it retrogrades westward against the stars.
By month's end, Mars will be 14 degrees west of Spica. Then, Mars will reverse directions and head right toward Spica again, passing only 1 degree from it in mid-July.
If you own a telescope, try aiming it at Mars in early April. It's quite a sight to see that big red ball through the eyepiece and, if you look very closely, you might be able to make out the small white polar ice cap and a few dark features on the Martian deserts.
As a special treat this year, April's full moon, the Easter Egg Moon, will be totally eclipsed right beside Mars on the night of April 14 and 15. Dazzling Mars will shine 9 degrees from the moon during totality and Spica only will be 1.5 degrees away, creating an amazing scene behind the spooky-looking moon.
During a total lunar eclipse, the moon turns a deep orange or red color, not unlike that of Mars. This is caused by sunlight refracting through the Earth's atmosphere and illuminating the shadowed moon.
If you would like to learn more about this year's opposition of Mars and the upcoming total eclipse of the moon, you're in luck. The Colorado Mountain SKY Club will host a free Public Astronomy Night program in the Allbright Family Auditorium on the CMC campus at 7:30 p.m. April 9.
I'll be presenting a program titled "Red Planet, Red Moon" and can give you all of the details. Afterward, we'll have a telescope set up for viewing Mars and the uneclipsed moon, weather permitting. I hope to see you there.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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