Thanks to a question from a Saipan Tribune reader I get to share some cool news with you. Last week I mentioned a NASA Mars mission. On the heels of that column came an e-mail asking if Mars is visible from Saipan.
Answer: Yes. It's not only easy to see, but this is a good time to see it. There's a lot going on in that area.
If you look west at 9pm, you'll see a bright, orange-colored body about 30 degrees over the horizon. That's Mars.
You may ask, “Dude, how can I estimate 30 degrees?”
Hey, no problem. Let me mention a little trick. My all-seeing gimlet eye happens to know that you've got a degree-measurer in your hand right now.
How do I know that? Because it is your hand!
Here's how it works: Make a fist like you're holding and aiming a pistol, extending your arm out, just like a target shooter. Your fist, at arm's length, is now covering 10 degrees of vertical arc.
So to set your eye 30 degrees over the horizon, you hold your fist out and walk it up from the horizon. One fist; two fist; three fist; Mars.
You can test this technique even if you're sitting in your office. Walk your fist up from the horizontal nine steps, and you should wind up looking at the ceiling directly over your head, which is the 90 degree point. Sure, your co-workers will think you're nuts, but they probably think that anyway. Just tell them Space-Commander Zepkron is beaming orders from Andromeda and you need to orient your mind-receptor to the zenith. This is great fun, and nobody will pester you again when it's time to kick in five bucks for the coffee fund.
Of course, you can rotate your fist so you can slice 10 degrees of arc in any direction. It doesn't have to be vertical. Like, duh.
Now that you're an expert on the topic, I'll mention that Mars is actually one fist to the left of due west at 9 pm today, not that it really matters, but times are tough so I want you to get your money's worth.
In fact, there is quite a little celestial get-together going on in the west, providing a perfect viewing opportunity for folks in Saipan, since most folks live on the west side of the island. Mars is close to Saturn right now, and Saturn is next to a bright star, Spica.
This trio takes stage after sunset. So I'm using 9 pm as the benchmark time here since Mars will go nighty-night early, setting at around 11 pm. The other two will follow like grumpy old men who can't stay awake for the fireworks.
Well, so much for Mars. Next adventure: Saturn. To get there, we're going to make a diagonal move from Mars. The diagonal will move towards the upper-left. We'll measure our movement with fists again, starting at Mars. One fist; two fist; Saturn.
Here's how to tell if you're there. Just to the left of Saturn is the star Spica. So if you're near this pair, you'll know it, since, like Mars, Spica and Saturn are both very bright.
Saturn is the famous ringed planet which has 62 moons, most of which are really small, but a couple of which are visible with a small telescope.
Speaking of which, I got my wife all jazzed on Saturn last week, since the rings are so spectacular. So she finally consented to letting me buy a bigger telescope. While I was silently gloating over that little victory the motor mounts in the SUV sheared. I don't know what made the universe, but whatever it is, it hates me. My telescope fund is wiped out. Oh well, back to the lotto again.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have an incoming message to answer... Ah, yes, Commander Zepkron, it's good to hear from you, sir. We're having a star-gazing party at twenty-one hundred hours, and you're invited. Can you make it? Great! Sure, I'll remind you: It's 17 billion fists east of the Guam-Pleiades meridian. That's right, Micro Beach, same as last time. Would you mind giving me a ride? Yeah, my SUV is in the shop again. Thank you. See you then, sir. Over and out.
Note: This column has been updated to correct an earlier error in star information.