Exciting view as Mars gets brighter

23:25, Mar 02 2014
RED PLANET: The planet Mars is seen in this recent undated handout image from NASA.

The planets are becoming more exciting as more of them move into prime-time viewing.

Jupiter is still there in the north-northwest, while tonight Mars rose above the hills in the east during my tour, probably around 11 or 11.30pm. Mars is brightening every night as we draw closer to it, nearing closest approach in April this year. It is distinctly orange compared with Spica, the bright blue star above it. Blue stars are hard to distinguish from white ones with your naked (unaided) eye, but the red stars, and the red planet, are clearly different. However, if you are unable to see the strong orange tinge, don't worry. Not everyone is able to see it.

When we finished the tour at 12.30 a much dimmer Saturn had just risen as well. It is still travelling in close relation to Scorpius, one of our winter constellations.

At 5am (February 27) I have just been outside to see brilliant Venus, the Morning "Star", high above and to the left of a beautiful slim crescent of Moon, tilted upward towards the planet. The shadowed part of the rest of the Moon was quite visible in the strong glow of Earthshine, sunlight reflecting off our planet onto the Moon.

With new Moon on March 1 the sky will remain nice and dark for a few more days. By the middle of the first week of March a still small but waxing Moon will be setting after 10pm. With our shortening days, the sky is already quite dark by 10pm, but of course gets better as the night goes on. The 10th month in the Maori lunar calendar, Poutu-te-rangi, begins on March 2, the day after the first new Moon this month. The Moon will be full on March 17 and new again on March 31.

With four planets featuring in the sky, including Venus in the east before sunrise, there should be many opportunities to see them near the Moon, as it circles Earth. Always a beautiful sight and worth keeping an eye on the Moon and the planets every night during the month, remembering that the Moon rises approximately one hour later each day. On March 19 a still quite full Moon will be near Mars and on March 27, if you are up well before the Sun you may see a slim crescent of Moon in the east near Venus.


Our summer sky is setting earlier each night, with Matariki setting first by 10pm, followed by Taurus the hunted bull, then Orion the Hunter (with The Pot at his centre), followed by his hunting dog, Canis Major containing Sirius, the brightest star in our sky. Also tagging along after them is Canis Minor, the lesser dog, consisting mainly of just two stars; not looking like a dog at all, rather a pencil or a fence post. Apparently it is all about the story.

Gemini, the twins, have been passing across the north on their sides, feet to the left, heads to the right. You may spot Castor and Pollux, the bright stars that represent their heads, one above the other low on the horizon. Gemini is below and to the right of Orion. Jupiter is "in" Gemini, appearing to sit between the twins, midway between their heads and feet. Of course the planet is between us and the much more distant stars of the constellation.

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879. A century after he published his ideas about space, time, and gravity, those ideas still inform our scientific endeavours.

Predictions based on his theories continue to be tested and proven correct to the limits our technology will allow.

His genius, I feel, was in asking "why?", and then proceeding, unhampered by his earthbound experience, to find and demonstrate his unconventional explanations. His theories still challenge our thinking, which is largely limited to our own Earthbound experiences of reality.

■ If you have a question or would like to receive or share information, please write to me at PO Box 152, Lake Tekapo 7945, or contact me by email: stars@tekapostarlight.co.nz.

Clear skies at night,
Freidl Hale at Tekapo Starlight

The Timaru Herald