Cool and clear weather continues here in Arizona, which means February and March are a great time to look skyward

Ideal Conditions 

Cool and clear weather continues here in Arizona, which means February and March are a great time to look skyward.

By Steve Kates

It’s going to be a great year for all of us to get ready for one of the most amazing close encounters with the planet Mars. Out of all the planets in the solar system, Mars has excited the minds of mankind for many centuries because of its similarity to Earth and because it may harbor some type of life on or under its surface.

Mars is a faint object in the sky in February and March skies, but things will change rapidly as we approach the months of April and May. Mars will close in within some 35 million miles of Earth during the last few days of July and will actually be a splendid sight in even a modest sized telescope, which will allow you to see the details of the planet’s landscape.

This entire event with Mars is listed as the Great 2018 Perihelic Apparition of Mars. The planet has not come this close to Earth since 2003, which is nearly the record. Astronomers theorize that the closest our planet has been to Mars was back some 59,635 years ago, in 57,617 B.C. For now, we’ll have to settle for a slowly brightening Mars, in the morning sky, just before dawn.

Meanwhile, the moon begins February as a waning gibbous moon, fresh out of its total lunar eclipse of Jan. 31. The moon passes some 4 degrees from Mars on the morning of Feb. 8.

New moon occurs on the 15th, which is the best time of the month to look for faint objects like galaxies and clusters in the rich Milky Way. Binoculars can be a great help, especially if you have some city lights to deal with. There’s also a partial eclipse of the sun, visible to penguins in Antarctica and ships at sea.

Also of note, the Chinese New Year falls on the 16th, the Year of the Dog.

First quarter moon occurs on Feb. 23. Plus, there are some interesting planets to view in February too. Look low in the southwestern sky during clear February nights, as Venus returns to our evening sky and will remain there for most of 2018.

More planets are visible in the February pre-dawn skies, and we’ll get a glimpse of Mars and Jupiter just before dawn in the southeastern sky.

Mars and the super giant star Antares, in Scorpius, have a close conjunction on the morning of the 10th low in the southeastern sky before dawn.

Heading into March, the vernal equinox, the return of spring, begins for us here in Arizona on March 20 at 9:15 a.m MST.

The moon appears full on the 1st of March. This one is known as the full worm moon. The moon then wanes and returns to its last quarter phase on the 9th, with another new moon on the 17th.

Look for a waxing crescent moon, starting on the night of the 19th, low in the western sky. Another full moon occurs on March 31.

Planets are starting to be visible in March skies too. Look low in the west at sunset on March 15, as Venus and Mercury form a nice pair just after sunset. Mercury is best seen on this date, as it reaches its greatest eastern elongation with the sun, some 18 degrees away from it. Meanwhile, Jupiter and Mars are well placed in the morning sky ahead of the rising sun.

Finally, no major meteor showers are in the forecast until April, when we get to view the annual Lyrids on or about April 22.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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