Rising in the northeast at sunset, Mars is directly opposite the sun in the sky, an event astronomers imaginatively call “opposition”. As a consequence, Mars is visible all night long as a brilliant orange-red “star”. It will be interesting to compare how the colour of Mars contrasts with that of Aldebaran and Betelgeuse, two nearby stars also described as orange-red in colour by keen stargazers.
Because this close approach of Mars is in the northern constellation of Taurus, our view of the planet isn’t as good as that seen by northern hemisphere sky watchers. From Dunedin, Mars never gets higher than 20deg above the northern horizon. In northern tropical regions, the planet will pass overhead.
Despite its relatively low altitude, if you have a telescope, the next few nights are still a great time to look at Mars. It is highest in the sky just after 1.30am, which would therefore be the best time to look.
Even small telescopes should show Mars’ tiny disk and, hopefully, some dark markings on the surface of the planet. If you watch the planet over a few hours, you should be able to see the dark features move as Mars rotates on its axis. Interestingly, a “day” on Mars is only 40 minutes longer than a day here on Earth.
On Thursday the full moon is less than 4deg from Mars in the sky. This close celestial pairing should bring a smile to the faces of stargazers across the region.
A full moon isn’t always the best time to stargaze because moonlight washes out the dimmer stars. However, the bright stars which delineate the constellation patterns like Orion and Taurus should remain easily visible.