Mars vs Venus after dinner

Posted on Jun 15 2018

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It’s been a long time since my telescope has seen any light, so I finally hauled the thing afield so I could usher in the summer skies. OK, summer hasn’t officially arrived yet. But after nearly a week of living on instant coffee and cold SpaghettiOs, I’m going to consider it here anyway since I can’t hold out any longer.

On my last night at the telescope grounds I was too lazy to set up my scope. I sat in a beach chair and used bare eyeballs to watch the scene from sunset to midnight or so. I had forgotten how much fun the simple approach is. The heavens are putting on a good show right now. I’m going to mention a few highlights in case you’d like to do some stargazing. Well, let’s make that “planet gazing,” too.

As the sun is setting, Venus is above it and following the sun’s downwards path. This is nothing remarkable. But right now, as daylight starts to fade, Venus has two companions that become visible to its lower right. One of these is the star, Pollux, and if you continue down and to the right is another star, Castor. These stars are part of the constellation Gemini. If you ever wanted to set eyes on these stars, their current proximity to Venus is an easy way to find them. The Venus-Pollux-Castor scene should be at good visibility about a half-hour to one hour after sunset.

I’ve mentioned Castor once or twice before. It’s got quite a lot of action going on. Although we see just one point of light with our bare eyes, it’s actually a cosmic six-pack of stars. They’re arrayed in three pairs of duos called “binary” stars. Binary stars are gravitationally-bound to each other and orbit each other. So now you know the gossip if you get a glimpse of Castor tonight.

Well, so much for the western sky.

The real action will be in the southern sky. Three planets are passing through the area. First there’s Jupiter, then Saturn, then the red-orange colored Mars. Jupiter and Mars are very bright right now.

As we face the south, the heavenly objects, including the planets, appear to transit the sky from our left to our right.

Just to dial in one point of reference, I’ll note that each of these three planets will pass due south of Saipan through a window that’s about 50-degrees to 60-degrees overhead tonight. Jupiter will be there at roughly 9:30pm, then Saturn at about 1am, then Mars at about 3:30am. These approximate figures should be good enough to get us in the ballpark; I claim no precision here.

Of course, no parade is complete without an interloper jumping into the procession. This parade is no exception. Our uninvited guest is the bright star Antares. It’s pale red, and will pass near the window after Jupiter does and before Saturn does. Antares is a potential decoy for the unwary, but it will not be showing as bright as any of the planets I mentioned.

But just because it’s acting like a decoy doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it. Antares is a freakishly large star, something like 700 times the diameter of our sun. It’s also called the “Heart of Scorpio,” so named for its position in the Scorpio constellation. It’s a good star to know about because it’s easy to find and is a useful guide for finding other stellar stuff.

Of all the action in the sky right now my favorite sight has been Mars. It is strikingly bright and juicy.

And it’s a sign of the times that the weather on Mars has become a news item here on Earth. Yesterday I caught an AM radio news report that mentioned a dust storm on Mars. The dust has blotted out the sunlight necessary to power the solar panels on NASA’s Opportunity rover.

I wonder if someday we’ll be hearing Mars weather reports from humans who are on the scene.

These days a standard ice-breaker question goes, “If there was a mission to Mars would you volunteer to be on the crew?”

I’ve got no answer to that one. If, however, there was a mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, the notion of orbiting that giant and colorful planet would be hard to resist.

I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see such a mission launched, but my diet over the past week sure hasn’t helped my odds. So I will wish you happy stargazing this weekend. Me, I’ll be looking for some fresh kale and organic vegetable juice; I’ve got to mend my ways.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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