This month on March 3rd, planet Mars reached “opposition” which means it is exactly opposite the sun in our sky and is up all night. This makes this March the best time all year to look at Mars. Look for the bright orange point of light rising in the east right around sunset. You should be able to see some fuzzy surface features and possibly its polar ice cap with binoculars or a small telescope. Mars reaches opposition about every 26 months.
Mars hovers around in the constellation Leo this month, the constellation which the Sphinx in Egypt seems to have been modeled after. Look for Leo’s head, which looks just like a backwards question mark. The dot of the question mark is Leo’s brightest star named Regulus, which is a Latin word for “little king.”
Notice Mars’ red/orange color, a condition cause by rust on the surface. Mars is iron rich, and just like iron rich soils on earth, it rusts. The reddish color of Mars to the Romans symbolized blood, and planet Mars was considered the Roman God of War. The month of March, coincidentally, gets its name from a variation of the Roman word for this planet.
Must see conjunction coming March 14
The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, will join for a close conjunction in the west on the evening of March 14. The two planets will be close enough in the sky for you to cover them both with two fingers held at arm’s length! Venus will be the slightly brighter of the two.
Early in March, you might also catch a glimpse of fainter planet Mercury just above the western horizon a half hour or so after sunset. Mercury can be tricky to see, though, so scan the western horizon with binoculars for help.
Of the hundreds of satellites orbiting earth, a group of them are named “Iridium Satellites” and they frequently flare brightly and are briefly visible from Earth. (These satellites provide communications services to satellite based telephones and pagers on Earth.) The flare is caused by flat parts of the satellite catching the sun and reflecting it our way, just like a mirror can catch the sunlight in your car on occasion. A couple good opportunities to see these flares are coming up. Look half-way up the southern sky at about 6:02 am on March 8th, and at 5:56 am on March 9th for a slow flash of white light. There will be another chance at 6:39 am on March 13, also halfway up the southern sky. These flares are so bright and sudden that you will almost certainly utter “Wow!” out loud in surprise if you are lucky enough to see one. If you’ve ever seen an unexplained flash in the sky, and it was moving slower than a meteor, it was most likely one of these Iridium flares.
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