Mars is always on the move, so it’s inevitable it would run into something beautiful. Tomorrow and Wednesday mornings it slides very close to the gorgeous double star, Beta Scorpii, also known as Graffias, in the constellation Scorpius. Although the planet rises around 1:30 in the morning, you’ll see it best straight up south around 5:30 a.m. local time or right at the start of dawn. I know that timing stings, but if you happen to rise in the middle of the night and have a south-facing window, pull the curtain aside for a look.
Tomorrow (March 15), only 15 arc minutes — equal to half the a full moon diameter — separate star and planet. But on the next morning (March 16), they’ll really be close, just 9 arc minutes apart or 1/3 the moon’s diameter. You can’t miss ’em. Face south at the start of dawn and look for two bright red-hued “stars” about three fists up from the horizon. The lower one is Scorpius’ brightest star, Antares; above it, the Red Planet a full magnitude brighter.
As fine as the view will be with the naked eye, a small telescope will reveal another dimension to this conjunction of two far-apart worlds: Graffias is a beautiful double star for low-power instruments. The main or brighter star, Beta-1, shines a little fainter than second magnitude, with a 6th magnitude companion orbiting close by to the northeast. They glimmer in a most beautiful way in the eyepiece. Add in Mars in the same field of view, and you’ve got a triple play!
If you use a magnification of 75x or higher, you’ll be able to see the planet’s gibbous phase and perhaps a couple dark surface markings. The north polar cap is currently visible (with difficulty) along Mars’ northern limb.
Today marks a special day for Mars in another way with the launch of the dual purpose ExoMars spacecraft. A joint venture between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, the probe is expected to reach Mars in seven months. On October 16, when the spacecraft is still 559,000 miles (900,000 kilometers) from the Red Planet, the lander will separate from the orbiter and three days later parachute down to the Martian surface. The orbiter will study rare gases in Mars’ atmosphere, in particular methane, which on Earth indicates either an active geology or biological processes.
While you’re out gazing at Mars, you may also get to see the northern lights. G1 or minor storming is forecast toward dawn tomorrow (March 15) and again tomorrow night from around 10 p.m. through 1 a.m. caused by a transition between slow and fast winds blowing from the sun. The moon’s about half and will brighten the sky some but probably not enough to ruin an aurora. Cross your fingers it’s clear!