While we’ve all been waiting for China’s space station to fall, Mars has been sneaking up on Saturn. Have you early-risers noticed this? The two bright planets huddled in the cold dawn just 1.3° apart this morning. Even bright moonlight couldn’t compromise the striking sight. Tomorrow (April 2) they’ll be closest at 1.2° shining together in the southeastern sky in the “Teapot” constellation Sagittarius just above the “lid.” The duo rises around 3 a.m. but will be best placed and easiest to see several hours later around 5:30-6 a.m. local time as morning twilight is getting underway. Look about two outstretched fists above the southeast horizon.
As the two planets orbit the sun, they slowly move to the east or “left” across the sky as viewed from the northern hemisphere. Mars, being much closer to the Earth, appears to move faster, so it’s been chasing the ringed planet for some time. It will finally catch up and pass it tomorrow. For a brief time, they’ll be closest together or in conjunction. The next time time you get up to see them, Mars will have moved to the east of Saturn. Their separation keeps increasing until two weeks from now they’ll be parted by 7° and in a month by 15°.
All the while, Mars and Earth are drawing closer to each other, so Mars will brighten noticeably week by week. You can use Saturn to compare. Right now, Mars shines at magnitude 0.2 (similar in brightness to Procyon in Canis Minor the Lesser Dog). Saturn is only slightly fainter at magnitude 0.5 but enough that I could tell the brightness difference between them this morning. Nature saw fit to put these two eggs in a basket just in time for Easter. Even painted them red and cream so we could them apart.
In just a month, Mars will gleam at magnitude –0.4, brighter than both Arcturus and Alpha Centauri. As counterintuitive as it sounds, negative magnitudes are brighter than positive ones. That’s just how the scale developed historically. Last night’s Blue Moon shone at magnitude –12.5 and today’s sun is a radiance-crazy –27!
If you have a telescope, don’t miss the opportunity to drag it out and point at the planetary duo if for no other reason than to appreciate how diverse the solar system is. Right next to each other we have a giant planet with rings of ice and a Lilliputian orb covered in cold, dry desert the color of rust. And we get to see them both while standing on the only place in universe we know for certain has life.
And how about the falling Chinese space station? It’s still predicted to fall today, but with a slight change to the time. Best estimates call for it to burn up at 6:11 CDT (23:11 UT) +/– 2 hours, so sometime late this afternoon or early evening U.S. time. I’ll update later today.
**** UPDATE 9 p.m. CDT April 1: The U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command announced that Tiangong 1 reentered the atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean at about 7:16 p.m. CDT April 1.