Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sky Guy Viewing ALERT 3-30-14 Mars & Spica

Hey Space Placers!

Tonight make sure you go outside at 9:30 p.m. local and face east. Grabbing your eye's attention will be the rust red-orange of bright Mars and the cool blue of the star Spica as they will be in a few degrees of one another. The two will provide a gorgeous color contrast and a bit of astronomical contrast as well - planet and star.

Mars and Earth are moving closer to one another by the minute, literally, by about 200 miles. This will continue, along with Mars getting brighter in the sky until April 14th when Mars will make its closest approach to Earth for this orbital cycle. Mars will be 57,406,300 miles away at closest approach.

When the outer planets - those beyond Earth - line up directly opposite the Sun and Earth they are said to be in opposition.  Opposition for Mars occurs on a roughly 26 month cycle and occurs on April 8th. On that dat the Red Planet will rise in the east at sunset and be visible in the sky all night.

Tonight Mars will be a little over 5 light minutes away which means that when you look at Mars the light you are seeing left the planet a little over 5 minutes earlier and has travelled at 186,000 miles per second, the speed of light, to reach us.

NASA launches missions to Mars based on this 26 month cycle to take advantage of the closer distance between the two planets. The latest mission to the Red Planet, MAVEN, was launched last November and will arrive in September 2014.

By contrast, Spica, the 15th brightest star in the night sky is 250 light years distant, so its light left in 1764. Spica is 2,300 times brighter than our Sun. Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

The orangish-rust color of Mars and blue of Spica will be pretty to see. You will also be able to gain an appreciation for the distances involved when looking at the night sky.

Be sure to watch Mars brighten and move in the sky over the next few weeks.


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