One of the skywatching highlights of the year takes place on the night of Jan. 29, as the full Moon and the planet Mars march high across the sky, according to the editors of StarDate magazine. Mars and the Moon are low in the east-northeast at nightfall, with the Red Planet to the left of the Moon. Mars looks like a brilliant orange star.
One reason this is such a grand spectacle is that Mars is at opposition on the 29th, which means it lines up opposite the Sun as Earth passes by Mars in our smaller, faster orbit around the Sun. Mars rises around sunset and remains in view all night. The planet is also closest to us around opposition, so it shines brightest for the year.
High-resolution images and high-definition video animation of the event are available online at StarDate's Media Center. There, you can also sign up to receive advanced e-mail notices of future skywatching events.
This is not a great opposition for Mars because it occurs around the time that Earth is closest to the Sun and Mars is farthest. The gap between the two planets will be a hefty 62 million miles (99 million km). The smallest possible distance at opposition is about 35 million miles (56 million km), which happened a few years ago. Mars appeared more than twice as bright then as it will this year.
Even so, Mars puts on quite a spectacle. Only the Moon, the planets Venus and Jupiter, and the star Sirius shine brighter. And since Venus is out of view in the Sun's glare, Mars will rank as the fourth-brightest object in the night sky.
Published bi-monthly by The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory, StarDate magazine provides readers with skywatching tips, skymaps, beautiful astronomical photos, astronomy news and features, and a 32-page Sky Almanac each January.
Established in 1932, The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas, hosts multiple telescopes undertaking a wide range of astronomical research under the darkest night skies of any professional observatory in the continental United States. McDonald is home to the consortium-run Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of the world's largest, which will soon be upgraded to begin the HET Dark Energy Experiment. An internationally known leader in astronomy education and outreach, McDonald Observatory is also pioneering the next generation of astronomical research as a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope.