A red ember is rising in the east these spring evenings, a star-like glow bidding our attention. It is none other than the Red Planet, Mars.
Named for the Roman god of war, the fourth planet from the sun has struck our imagination for thousands of years. Our active presence with robotic landers, rovers and imaging satellites about the planet have only deepened our fascination and raised more questions.
How would you describe the color of Mars? We call it the "red" planet, yet it isn't quite red. It may look to as a pale red-orange, even yellow.
Color pictures sent back from space probes, including the NASA rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiousity, show the rocky plains and mountains, as well as sand dunes, colored somewhere between red and yellow. The sky is the same; rather than blue, suspended dust gives it a hue similar to the surface.
The color of the glorious point in the night sky we call Mars, indicates to your eyes the predominant shade of the planet itself. No telescope is needed to tell you that.
We don't always see Mars bright in the night sky. The planet takes roughly two Earth years (780 of our days) to circle the sun; approximately every two years, the Earth and Mars make a close pass, and the brightness of Mars as seen from Earth - as well as Earth as seen from Mars - intensifies.
When an outer planet is opposite the sun and thus rises at sunset, it is called "opposition." Mars arrives at opposition on April 8 and will be visible all night long. It then appears highest in the south at around midnight.
Due to the elliptical path of Mars, the planet varies in how close it approaches. This is not one of the extra-close oppositions when Mars appears particularly bright as well as easier to examine in a backyard telescope. The last extra-close approach was in 2003; the next will be in 2018.
You will be able to see Mars the rest of the year in the evening sky, but it will be trailing farther behind the Earth and be dimming.
Notice that Mars is positioned fairly close to a a less-bright bluish-white star, about 5 degrees to the lower right. This is the star Spica. They are seen rising east-southeast. Looking far to the left, in the east, will be a very bright orange star known as Arcturus.
Meanwhile, look for the very bright planet Jupiter, high up in the south as darkness sets in. Jupiter is gradually moving in front of the stars of Gemini, and is seen to the upper left of the prominent constellation Orion. Winter was particularly cold this year and you may not have many good looks at Orion. You may still see it in the relatively milder nights of April, although Orion with its three-star "belt" is now dipping down in the southwest in the evening hours.
Venus is shining brightly low in the east-southeast about an hour before sunrise.
First-quarter moon is on April 7.
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Keep looking up!