Ruddy planet Mars has accompanied our evening skies since last year, when it was at one of its relatively close approaches and glowed like a brilliant copper penny.

Ruddy planet Mars has accompanied our evening skies since last year, when it was at one of its relatively close approaches and glowed like a brilliant copper penny.

The Earth has hurried along in its orbit, slowly leaving Mars behind. This weekend (March 29-31), Mars is not quite so bright, but is nicely paired with the beautiful blue-white Pleiades star cluster.

Only your eyes are needed, although binoculars will certainly enhance the show.
Around 9 p.m., Mars is about half way up in the western sky. The planet is just left or a little above the Pleiades, about three degrees away.

(We measure the sky in degrees; from the flat horizon to straight overhead is 90 degrees. The full Moon is about a half degree. If you extend your three middle fingers towards the sky, the width of the fingers together spans about five degrees.)

To the left of Mars you will the see the “V”- shaped star cluster known as the Hyades, tipped on the upper left by the bright, fiery red-orange star, Aldebaran.

This star appears like its part of the Hyades cluster but in reality the star cluster is a little more than twice as far away.

Aldebaran and Mars actually look somewhat alike in color, although the star is brighter.

Mars is magnitude +1.4. Aldebaran is magnitude +0.86. On the magnitude brightness scale, the smaller the number the brighter the star appears.

To the ancient star watcher, all that was obvious was that Aldebaran seemed “fixed” and never moving in relation to other stars. The five known planets, however, move and were known as “wandering stars.”

Aldebaran, one of the stars, is a great globe of hydrogen and helium gas, glowing by nuclear fusion. Its a red giant star, about 35 to 40 times the diameter of the Sun. In visible light, Aldebaran puts out about 153 times as much light as our Sun.

The star is approximately 65 light years away, or roughly 65 x 5.88 TRILLION miles (my pocket calculator can’t handle it). The Pleiades are about 444 light years away.

Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, is a rocky world, about a third the size of Earth and at its closet is a “mere” 35 million miles distant, but still a lot farther than I have managed in my 2007 automobile.

Seeing Mars is easy; now for a little challenge!

At the same time Mars makes an interesting pairing with the Pleiades star cluster, on the eastern side of the evening sky, asteroid 2 Pallas is visible in binoculars and about to make a close pass with an easy-to-see star in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman.

Pallas is the second asteroid ever discovered (1802). It is the third most massive, at 318 miles, and is currently around +8th magnitude. In binoculars it looks just like any one of a “countless” number of faint stars. With a good star map showing Pallas’ movement night to night, you can find it too. It takes a little practice, patience, and a fairly dark sky.

On the night of April 10, Pallas will be very near the star “Eta Bootis” or Muphrid (magnitude +2.7), which is a few degrees from the very bright orange star, Arcturus.  With a small telescope, once you find Pallas you can detect its motion against the faraway stars, in about a half hour’s time.

Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines are good sources for more information.
New Moon is on April 5.

Keep looking up!

Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.