If you’re not a musician or college student, there’s a chance you’re awake between 6 and 6:30 a.m. And if you have a window facing southeast, with a sky that’s clear almost all the way down to the horizon, you’re set for a true spectacle. It’s worth a look even if you must set an alarm, especially this Sunday morning, February 27.
You may have already noticed the single dazzling “star” down low, every morning at dawn. Brighter than any other by far, it’s the planet Venus, aka the Morning Star. It’s now more eye-popping than it will be for the rest of the year. But catching it is just the appetizer, the warm-up.
Look below it for a much less brilliant orange star. This is the planet Mars. To observe our two nearest planet neighbors hovering side-by-side is a rare treat because they normally lie in opposite directions. Venus’ orbit is inside of ours, nearer to the Sun, while Mars is the next planet outward of us. So when they’re closest, they lie in opposite directions in the sky.
Not now. Mars currently hovers at very nearly its farthest-away position so that when we see Venus we can look past it, three times farther away, and spot Mars off in the distance. On top of that, Venus is twice the size of Mars and five times more reflective. No wonder there’s such an imbalance, with Venus more than a hundred times brighter than the Red Planet. Still, through binoculars you’ll easily see that Mars is orange, and through any small telescope Venus shows off its half Moon shape.
But with no optical aid at all, it’s a major thrill to see those two nearest worlds side-by-side. Any clear morning will do, anytime during the next few weeks. But we’ve saved the best for last.
This Sunday morning, February 27, same time of 6-6:30 a.m., the crescent Moon joins the party to form a perfectly straight vertical line! With the Moon lowest, and dazzling Venus at the top, you’ll see little Mars in the middle right between them. Now we’ve got our planet’s three closest neighbors all together! If you’ve got — or can easily get to — an unobstructed view toward the southeast, don’t miss it this Sunday.