Mars Shines Bright
Mars continues to highlight the night sky this month. It's well up in the east at nightfall, and passes almost directly overhead around 11 or 12 o'clock. Mars looks like a very bright orange star.
Mars is showing off because Earth passed closest to it about three weeks ago. But now we're starting to pull ahead of the planet in our smaller, faster orbit around the Sun. And it won't take long to see a difference. By the end of the month, Mars will shine only about half as bright as it does tonight. And it'll continue that trend for several months -- losing about half of its brilliance each month.
Another effect is that Mars will soon change directions in its march across the background of stars. Right now, because we're just passing the planet, it appears to move backwards. The effect is like watching another car as you pass it on the highway. As you zoom by, it appears to move backwards against the background of buildings or trees. When you get far enough ahead, though, the other car appears to resume its normal forward motion against the background.
Mars will resume its normal eastward motion through the stars next month. And by spring, it'll move like it's jet propelled, spanning more than the width of a full Moon from one night to the next.
For now, though, look for Mars between the tips of the horns of Taurus, the bull, shining brightly all night long.
Tomorrow: Slicing up the Moon.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2007
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.