Moon and Planets
Like three cars on a celestial track, the Moon and the planets Mars and Saturn chug across the sky tonight. Although they're a good ways apart, they're equally spaced, which can help you track down the two planets.
As night falls, Mars stands almost straight overhead. It looks like a bright orange star. The Moon and Saturn stretch out between Mars and the eastern horizon. Saturn is below the Moon, and shines a tad brighter than Mars, with a slightly golden color.
The "track" these three bodies are following is the ecliptic -- the Sun's path across the sky. The planets all orbit in roughly the same plane, so as seen from Earth, they stay close to the ecliptic. The Moon's orbit aligns close to the ecliptic, too.
The ecliptic slices right down the middle of the zodiac -- the menagerie of animals and people that form the 12 most popular constellations. Mars, for example, is near the feet of Gemini, the twins; the Moon is moving into Cancer, the crab; and Saturn is quite near the star that represents the heart of Leo, the lion.
Popular culture tends to place a great emphasis on these constellations, but they're really no different from any others. They have no direct influence over human behavior or human events -- they simply coincide with the Sun's annual motion across the starry sky.
Even so, they're pretty to look at -- and you can get an especially good look at them tonight, with the Moon, Mars, and Saturn pointing the way.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.