Man oh man, Mars is sure getting bright and closing in, too. Now at magnitude –1.2, the Red Planet shines second only to Sirius, the brightest star. Damian’s montage (above) beautifully illustrates how much bigger (and brighter) the planet has become since the start of the year. Although Mars rises red as radishes around 11 p.m., it follows a low path across the southern sky, so it’s not obvious until after midnight.
If you’re happen to be out that late, face southeast and look for the planetary equivalent of the Eye of Sauron. And if you need help finding it, the moon once again will come to your aid. On Sunday morning, June 3 the waning gibbous will be in conjunction with Mars, passing just 2.2° to the north of the planet. The two should look really amazing so close together. You can catch the pair either late Saturday evening low in the southeast or rise with the birds at dawn, when they’ll be considerably higher up and due south.
Mars is presently 15 arc seconds across. To make sense of that number, consider that the full moon is ½° or about 30 arc minutes across, and one arc minute equals 60 arc seconds. So yes, the planet’s pretty tiny but don’t dismiss its diminutive disk. Mars is getting big for a small planet, so much so that even a small 3-inch telescope magnifying at 75x will show it as a small, pink-orange dot. Increase the magnification and you might even see some dark markings, the ones more than a few 20th century astronomers thought were lichens and other forms of vegetation. Now, we know they’re due to differences in mineral composition and the amount of wind-blown dust deposited across the seasons.
The Red Planet will spend the entire summer low in the southern sky crossing from Capricornus the Sea Goat, where it is now, into Sagittarius and then back into Capricornus. It will be closest to Earth on July 31 at 35.8 million miles (57.6 million km), when it will pork out at 24.3 arc seconds, the biggest and brightest it’s been since 2003.
Anything that’s bright in the sky is fun to see and follow because it only takes a little effort. I like easy as much as the next person.