by William J. Bechaver
EARTH — This week, the moon is in the middle of an amazing series of planetary encounters.
It passed close to Jupiter earlier this week, and now tomorrow morning, it is in the midst of it’s close encounter with Mars.
Early on the morning of Friday, February 9, the crescent moon will have moved beyond Mars, lying off to the east of the red planet. Almost directly below Mars is Antares, the brightest star of the constellation Scorpius.
As the weekend passes on, the moon will move from Scorpius into the constellation of Sagittarius.
In the early morning hours of Sunday, February 11, the waning crescent moon will be just over two degrees directly above the beautiful ringed planet, Saturn.
Again, you will have to go out at about six o’clock, or about an hour before sunrise. The moon will lie lower now, in the morning sky, presenting a finer lunar crescent. Just below will be Saturn, easily discernable from the stars below.
To top off the close encounter, the two will lie just above the famous Teapot, the most recognizable asterism of Sagittarius. An asterism is a recognizable pattern of stars that is not itself a constellation. The Teapot sits in the western part of Sagittarius.
You will have to have good timing to spot the two, allowing them to climb high enough in the morning sky, yet spotting them before the sun begins to lighten the eastern horizon, washing out the stars of the Teapot. Saturn will remain visible after the stars fade from the sky.
A bonus lies in the mysteries of Saturn and Mars. Though appearing distant from each other right now, the gap between the two will close significantly this month, and even more noticeably next month.
What lies ahead this year is one of the most beautiful planetary spectacles, so keep an eye on the two as they dance across the heavens.
Next week, the moon will traverse into the evening sky, where it will find Venus for us. We’ll look at that amazing encounter, and explore more closely this amazing month without a full moon.
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William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.