Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
I received dozens of phone calls from excited folks last August after an e-mail made its way around the Internet announcing that Mars was about to make its closest pass by Earth in 50,000 years and would appear as big as the full moon in our sky. Of course, it was a hoax, the same hoax that has cluttered our e-mail inboxes every August since 2003, disappointing millions of people.
Well, I have some good news and some bad news about Mars.
First, the good news. Mars will pass close to the Earth in January.
The bad news is that it will not appear anywhere near as large as the full moon. In fact, 2010's opposition of Mars will be the least favorable since 1995. That's not to say Mars will not shine brightly in our night sky this winter. It will. But a telescope always is required to see Mars as anything other than a sparkly, red point of light. On Jan. 29, Mars will pass about 62 million miles from Earth. That's about 250 times farther away from us than the moon - not exactly a close encounter. Still, Mars will glow brightly in our sky all winter, like a burning ember.
In the meantime, Mars has been hanging around in our early morning sky, moving eastward through the stars of Gemini. With each passing day, Mars grows brighter in our sky as the gap between the Earth and Mars decreases by about a million miles a day. Look for it nearly overhead in the pre-dawn sky, not far from the twin bright stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux.
If you're up early and own a pair of ordinary binoculars, pull them out this week and watch night by night as Mars closes in on the famous Beehive star cluster in the zodiacal constellation of Cancer, the Crab. On the morning of Nov. 1 (after midnight on Halloween), Mars will pass in front of the Beehive cluster, providing a spectacular view through binoculars or a small telescope. The dazzling Red Planet will be surrounded by dozens of glittering stars. The nights before and after will be nearly as good, with Mars lingering at the fringes of the cluster.
The Beehive star cluster, also known by its catalog number of M44, is a swarm of some 350 stars nearly 600 light years away. From that distance, the star cluster appears to us as a faint, fuzzy mist to the unaided eye, but binoculars will reveal several dozen of the Beehive's brightest "bees," including several striking pairs and triangles. The ancients called this fuzzy patch of light the Praesepe, or Manger, and the naked-eye stars on either side of the Manger were named Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis, the Northern and Southern Donkeys.
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published all around the world. Check out Jimmy's Web site at www.jwestlake.com.