Mars draws closer to Earth, joins the moon and Spica tonight

Mars (upper left), Spica in Virgo and the waning gibbous moon will put a smile on your face when they come in the southeast tonight March 18 around 10:30-11 p.m. Stellarium

Tonight after 10:30, look over to the southeast and you’ll see a remarkable triangle of celestial lights: Mars, Spica and the waning gibbous moon. For those who remember their geometry the threesome will form either an equilateral, isosceles or right triangle depending on the where you live and time of night.

Mars on March 14, 2014 photographed from Athens, Greece. The north polar cap is at bottom. What appears as a polar cap in the south (top) are clouds and frost in a large crater on the planet called Hellas. At left is a patch of evening clouds. Credit: Manos Kardasis

Fiery Mars now outshines Spica and all the nighttime stars except Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. It’s rapidly approaching its April 8 opposition when our two planets will be their closest since early 2008. A closer Mars means a bigger view in the telescope – the planet’s disk has swollen to more than 13 arc seconds wide, large enough that observers with 6-inch and larger telescopes using magnifications of 150x and higher can spy a variety of dark markings on its dusty surface.

Curiosity snapped this photo of the barren, rocky landscape of Mars on March 16. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the most prominent Martian features this season is the north polar cap, but you’d better look quick. With summer underway in Mars’ northern hemisphere, the cap has been steadily shrinking, and now appears as small dab of white along the planet’s northern edge or limb.

Martian winds pick up dust and swirl it around to create dust devils just like the ones on Earth. These are tracks left by dust devils in the planet’s Utopia Planitia region on Jan. 19, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit:NASA/JPL/ASU

For more on interesting things to see on the Red Planet in the coming weeks, please check out a recent article I wrote for Universe Today. You’ll also want to download Meridian, a free and useful program to help you know what features on Mars are facing you at any time of night or day.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

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