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Touring the Skies By: Jim Bonser (

March 28, 2014
Northern-Sun Print
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Ironically, the two ‘stars’ of the night sky of April are not stars at all! The first we will talk about is the next planet out from the Sun: Mars. Mars reaches opposition this month on April 8th. Since we are closer to the Sun than Mars we travel around the Sun more quickly than Mars does. Because of the difference in our orbital speeds it takes 2.13 years for the Sun and Earth and Mars to line up. Usually, when a planet is at opposition (meaning the planet is opposite the Sun in the sky from our point of view here on Earth) we are as close to that planet as we are going to get that year. In the case of Mars though, that is not necessarily so. That is because Mars’ orbit is a bit eccentric. In astronomical terms the word eccentric means not a perfect circle. Without getting too technical, none of the planets, Earth included has a perfectly circular orbit, but Mars is exceptionally so. Because of this Mars will actually be about 450,000 km (about 279,617 miles) closer 5 2/3 days after opposition because Mars’ orbit will be curving slightly toward us at opposition this year. Mars will be quite bright at -1.5 magnitude but not as bright or as close as it will get during the next 3 oppositions in 2016, 2018 and 2020. The 2018 opposition will be the best one in coming years when Mars will be 0.39 AU from us and reach magnitude -2.8. An AU (Astronomical Unit) is the mean distance from the center of the Earth to the center of the Sun - about 93 million miles - in case you were wondering. John Leeson, a friend of mine, pointed out that Mars is very easy to find if you remember the little phrase used to find the stars Arcturus and Spica: “Arc to Arcturus and then speed on or ‘spike’ to Spica.” The idea is to follow the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper away from the Dipper’s bowl until you reach the bright orange colored star Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Bootes and then on to the bright white star Spica in the constellation Virgo. This year bright Mars gets in the way so the phrase has to be altered slightly to move on to Mars and then quickly speed on to Spica. The other ‘star’ of the skies this April is not a star or even a planet but is our nearest neighbor in space: the Moon. We will be treated to a full eclipse of the moon on April 15th. That’s the good news! The bad news is that the best part of the show does not start until about 12:58 a.m. That is when the Moon enters the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow. Mid-eclipse occurs at 2:46 a.m. If you are like me, you will simply set your alarm clock for about 2:30 a.m., slip into your warmest snowmobile suit, grab your camera with your longest telephoto lens (already mounted on a tripod) and head outside to snap a few shots and then go back to bed. If you are more dedicated than me, you might want to use a telescope, if you are slightly less dedicated you may simply want to look out a south facing window, admire the beautiful reddish colored moon and then back to the warm bed as quickly as possible. Totality will begin about 2:07 a.m. and end at 3:25 a.m. so you will have plenty of time to get a nice picture if you want to. Let’s hope the skies are clear but if not we will get another chance in October, although the October eclipse will be a bit before sunrise for us so not great for those of us who are not really early risers. Jupiter is still in Gemini this month, well placed for observing in the early evening hours. Saturn will be clearing the tree tops to the east by 10:00 p.m. at the beginning of the month and around 2 hours earlier as April draws to a close. April is going to be a great month for enjoying the sky show. Temperatures should be much more tolerable and the variety of bright planets and a dim red eclipsed moon will make setting up your telescope well worth the effort so be sure get those scopes out of the closet where they have been stored all winter and enjoy all the ‘stars’ this month. Clear Skies!


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