by William J. Bechaver
EARTH — For the past couple of weeks, we have watched Mars meander past the other planets in the morning sky.
This week, his trek is complete as he closely encounters Saturn in the early morning sky.
On the morning of Tuesday March 31, Mars will be less than a degree below Saturn when they rise in the east.
By four o’clock in the morning, both Saturn and Mars will have risen, if you have a clear, eastern horizon. More distant and slightly dimmer Saturn will be above nearer and redder Mars.
Saturn with its amazing and expansive ring system is much larger than is Mars. But being more than six times more distant, the two planets appear about the same brightness from Earth, with lower Mars having a distinctly reddish hue.
The two will continue to climb higher into the clearer sky as the morning progresses, and remain visible long after the Sun begins to lighten the sky, before rising nearly three hours later.
Up to the right of the pair is brighter Jupiter, prominently dominating the morning sky. Just last week, Mars began its speedy descent by sliding past Jupiter. Now, it’s morning motion continuing, it will outpace Saturn as well.
Mars travels faster in its shorter orbit around the sun, being closer to the sun than the two gas giants. Now, as it appears from Earth, Mars has passed them.
In reality, we on Earth are gaining on all three, being closer to the sun, on a shorter and faster path than all of them. Mars is higher in the sky every week, as we on Earth gain on it.
Mars began March far higher in the sky than the distant two. And as it passes into April, it has surpassed them, being lower and rising later than lagging Jupiter and lumbering Saturn.
This week, the move is complete, as Mars has won the race, and will only fall behind when Earth finally passes it in mid October!
This week, in the evening sky, the crescent moon will join Venus. Friday evening, the moon will be below the brilliant jewel high in the evening sky. The following evening, it will be above Venus.
As Venus reached its highest position in the evening sky last week, it will be lower, and and therefore set earlier, every evening as we move into April.
There is plenty of planet watching to be had this week, as Mars outpaces the larger outer planets in the morning, and Venus begins to gain on us in the evening, giving us amazing views to welcome April, and the impending spring!
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Astronomical times, distances of naked-eye objects for this weekend:
Sun set = 7:18 p.m.
6 minutes later than last week
92.81 million miles from Earth
184,879 miles further than last week
Venus set = 11:14 p.m.
9 minutes later than last week
62.91 million miles from Earth
5,017,206 miles nearer than last week
Moon set = 11:29 p.m.
7 hours 39 minutes later than last week
248,365 miles from Earth
3,425 miles nearer than last week
Jupiter rise = 3:20 a.m.
24 minutes earlier than last week
498.19 million miles from Earth
9,954,637 miles nearer than last week
Mars rise = 3:42 a.m.
9 minutes earlier than last week
137.60 million miles from Earth
5,236,869 miles nearer than last week
Saturn rise = 3:43 a.m.
26 minutes earlier than last week
961.44 million miles from Earth
9,887,430 miles nearer than last week
Mercury rise = 5:51 a.m.
4 minute earlier than last week
91.52 million miles from Earth
9,420,029 miles further than last week
Sun rise = 6:48 a.m.
10 minutes earlier than last week
92.82 million miles from Earth
184,433 miles further than last week
12,558 miles further than last night
First Quarter Moon occurs on Wednesday, April 1, at 4:21 am.
Note: Times are local Mountain Time. Actual sundown is about ten minutes earlier than calculated sunset. Along the front range, differing times vary depending on your distance from the mountains.
William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.