Mars continues to pester Venus in the west these late August evenings. It seems the two planets will never part. That’s good news for sky watchers who want to follow Mars as long as possible until it’s too close to the sun to see. Mars is much fainter than Venus – only a little brighter than the stars in the Big Dipper – but its proximity to a brighter planet will make it relatively easy to find for some time to come.
Don’t count on seeing this tiny orange spark by eye alone. You’ll need binoculars. Tonight through September 1, you can also watch Venus approach Virgo’s brightest star Spica. The two will be closest on Tuesday evening when they’re separated by just one degree. That’s the width of your little finger held against the sky. Since Mars is only 4 degrees from Venus, you’ll be able to watch the whole show at one time in the same field of view of your binoculars. That’s pretty neat.
When I was just getting into astronomy around age 11, I kept a close watch on what the planets were doing. I drew maps and wrote elaborate descriptions of their current positions and where they were headed. One of the most confusing aspects of this crazy and wonderful hobby is the simple fact that nothing stands still in the sky. The Earth’s rotation, the individual movements of the planets and the moon’s revolution combine to throw everything into disarray. You think Mars is over here when it’s really over there. Why can’t everything stand still for a while so we can get better acquainted? I suppose that would be nice, but like B.B. King says, the thrill would be gone. The very motions themselves are what keeps things interesting. That’s why it’s not only fun but instructive to follow Venus and learn the constellations. Even if you don’t know every detail of what’s happening, you become familiar with celestial and planetary motions in a very intuitive way through the simple act of watching. Then next time you read why Mars sometimes moves backwards or why the stars rise four minutes earlier each night, you’ll have that “Aha!” moment when things snap into place. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to begin with the visceral experience of something, however ignorant you are of its workings, before proceeding to an intellectual understanding of it.
The same idea applies when reading scientific material. If you read one level beyond your level of knowledge, the point where you only begin to grasp a concept, you sow the seeds in your mind for deeper understanding over time. I remember struggling over articles in Sky and Telescope magazine years ago, but read them anyway even if only a few sentences made sense. Now I find that almost all the articles are understandable. I guess it comes down to attempting more than you think you can do. Happy planet watching!