April is here, the month of Aries and fiery Mars, known aptly as the Red Planet. In keeping with that, this month the campfire-orange celestial body comes closer to Earth than it has been in six years, and will be blazing especially bright with its ruddy hue.
Though not the harbinger of war to every Native culture—the Maya used Venus to determine the best timing for attack—Mars, named after the Greek god of war (also known as Ares, as a matter of fact), will be on par with the glittering star Sirius, especially mid-month, and paired with icy-blue Spica for most of that time. The last time Mars was anywhere near this big and bright was in 2007, according to Sky & Telescope and other astronomy experts.
On Tuesday April 8, Mars is in opposition, meaning the Earth is directly between it and the sun, putting the three of them in a straight line and fully illuminating the fourth planet from the sun. A week later, on April 14, Earth and Mars will be the closest they ever come to one another, 57 million miles apart, or “a 6+ month flight for NASA's speediest rockets,” NASA said. That’s no small difference from the farthest the two can get, which is 250 million miles, according to NBC News.com.
“You won't have any trouble finding Mars on this night,” NASA said in the commentary to the below video. “The full moon will be gliding by the Red Planet in the constellation Virgo, providing a can't-miss ‘landmark’ in the midnight sky.”
From Turtle Island, “it’s the brightest point in the southeast after dark” during April, especially in the middle of the month, according to Sky & Telescope.
“But it’s basically the same size and brightness all month,” Sky & Telescope said. “Mars and Spica cross the sky together from dusk until dawn.”
While Mars is gearing up, it behooves sky lovers to watch for the crescent moon on the evenings of Saturday April 5 and Sunday April 6, when it will gleam next to Jupiter, which is also especially brilliant this time of year, Earthsky.org tells us. The two space objects will also help point the way to a special "ring" of stars, Earthsky.org says.
“For a challenge, you might want to use the moon and Jupiter to star-hop to the great big loop of stars known as Winter Circle,” Earthsky.org says. “This Winter Circle is an asterism—a star pattern that is not a constellation. In fact, this brilliant star formation dwarfs the constellation Orion, with Orion’s bright star Rigel marking the southwest part of the Winter Circle.”
Meanwhile for Mars, which will also dance with Jupiter and the moon this month, the Tuesday April 8 opposition also means the Red Planet will be out all night, according to Earthsky.org. If you want a closeup and don’t have a telescope, Sky & Telescope points out the online observing session, The Night of the Red Planet, hosted by the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0 on April 8th beginning at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. But you won’t need it for April’s star- and planet-studded spectacle, because as Earthsky.org says, “For much of April 2014, you can watch this brilliant world shine from dusk till dawn.”