Over the next week, the waxing and then waning moon will pass three bright planets — Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. First to get a visit will be Jupiter both tonight and tomorrow night (June 23). Saturn follows on June 27 and Mars on the 30th. The moon moves faster across the sky because it’s so much closer to Earth. That’s why it repeatedly laps the planets month after month. The close approaches are called conjunctions, and we’re grateful for them not only for their beauty but also because the moon helps us find these objects with ease.
Of the three only one will be a close conjunction. On Wednesday the 27th, the Full Flower Moon will pass just 1° (two full moon diameters) above the planet. What a sweet sight that will be — watching the full moon rise with a planetary companion. That’s also the same night Saturn reaches opposition, rising at sunset and staying in view the entire night. The ringed planet will also be closest to the Earth that night. Time to get out that scope you as a gift and enjoy the planet’s stunning rings.
The Mars conjunction happens three days after full moon, so you’ll have to stay up a little later to see it. It’s so easy to see these beautiful pairings because it’s summer, and many of us are outside later than usual. Mars is in the news again because its dustier than a dirt road in mid-summer.
But recent photos taken by Australian amateur Anthony Wesley indicate that the dust may be starting to clear. His image from June 21 still shows plenty of suspended dust, but the dark albedo features Syrtis Major and Sinus Meridiani are beginning to show through the haze. There’s also a prominent dark collar along the northern border of the south polar cap.
I finally got a good view of Mars on June 21 at 4:30 a.m. Central Time through a 10-inch telescope and saw parts of two dark markings, Mare Sirenum and Mare Cimmerium. The polar cap, which would normally be distinct, appeared pale-white and patchy using a magnification of 254x. You could see it was there but the outline was unclear. There’s plenty of time for potentially great views with opposition still more than a month away.
NASA attempts to contact the Opportunity rover every day, but there’s still no reply. Meanwhile, the Curiosity rover on the other hemisphere of Mars has been recording thickening dust conditions. In other news, the storm is officially a “planet-encircling” or global dust event, according to Bruce Cantor of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, who is deputy principal investigator of the Mars Color Imager camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This storm’s more patchy compared to the big global storms of 1971-72 and 2001 which totally obscured the surface.