The night of the Martian super-close approach has come and gone. But Mars remains blazingly brilliant all month. And it’s not even the best thing out there.
My friend Billie-Jo tells about her recent Rhode Island beach camping trip: “My husband Randy and I just stood there gaping at that amazing array of planets – Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars all in a row.” It was gratifying to see a non-astronomer so accurately aware of, and excited by, the rare display above our heads this summer. But it won’t last forever. By late fall, only Saturn and Mars will remain, with the latter too distant and tiny to draw much attention.
And it’s not just planets. Evenly spaced between those worlds are some of the zodiac’s most famous stars, with the whole thing forming a rainbow of gemstones.
Want to see it for yourself? It’s easy, if you can get to a place with an unobstructed sweep of sky to the west, south and southeast, like the Walkway over the Hudson. Or maybe you have hilltop friends with an extensive view. Or you can phone the affable Barry Knight, who might take you up on his amazing private fire tower near the Ashokan Reservoir.
The correct time is important. Before 9 p.m., Mars is too low in the southeast. After around 9:30, Venus gets too low in the west, or even sets. So, you really want to observe this thing from 9 to 9:15 p.m. Any clear night in the next few weeks will work. Rip out this page, bring it with you and just follow along.
Start with the brightest star above where the Sun set. There, lowish in the west, is brilliant Venus, which has been our companion for months. In the following, the word “brilliant” means one of the sky’s most dazzling “stars.” The word “bright” means less luminous, but still eyecatching.
Start your sweep to the left of Venus. You’ll be looking for a line of six bright or brilliant stars that gets slightly higher up as you look leftward, but then curves lower again, making the whole formation a kind of enormous, slightly flattened rainbow that starts leftward from Venus and ends in nearly the opposite direction of the sky.
Ready? From Venus, go left and a bit higher and you’ll see the bright-blue star Spica, Virgo’s main luminary. Continue left and slightly upward to the brilliant yellow/white Jupiter, the highest point of the rainbow. Go left and a bit lower from Jupiter, and you’ll see the bright-orange Antares, the major luminary of Scorpius. Continue left from orange Antares, and the next bright star is the colorless Saturn. (Saturn’s actually a bit higher than Antares, spoiling the perfect rainbow arc.) Continue left and lower from Saturn, and you reach the very brilliant and orange Mars.
If you counted six stars, you’ve succeeded, with four of them being planets. They’re each separated by roughly the same distance from each other. You don’t need a telescope for any of this. But if you own any-size scope lying around gathering dust, your best targets are Jupiter and Saturn.
Again, the only challenge is finding a site with an open, unobstructed view halfway around the sky from the west through the south to the southeast. If you’re nestled somewhere, you may have to move to a couple of spots, and take in pieces at a time – of this magnificent, jeweled, celestial rainbow.