08 July 2012

Planets moving along the Ecliptic

Position of Mars in early July
Looking into the evening sky, two planets are visible in the south-west and are heading toward a 'conjunction' in August when they will line up with a bright star. Mars is the faster-moving of the two, changing position each night against the backdrop of stars as it travels around the Sun roughly every two Earth years. In a previous blog post, I noted the position of Mars in the constellation Leo, where it emerged from retrograde motion in April and has been moving steadily east each night since then. Last week I showed its position in another blog post highlighting how far it had traveled from Leo, now moving into Virgo. And in one month, during the middle of August, Mars will finally arrive between Saturn and its stellar neighbor Spica, creating a wonderful sight.

But these milestones are just the highlights that punctuate the journey. In fact, looking out each night at Mars is quite wonderful, seeing it shifting its position along the ecliptic, illuminating the pathway of the planets, Sun and Moon across the zodiac band in our night sky. I point this out to guests at the California Academy of Sciences when I give talks there during NightLife each Thursday, and this is one of the most inspiring things people discover as they look up in the sky with me -- that they can actually see the motion of Solar System objects by just looking up and paying attention to what they see.

If you want to learn more about Mars, and the upcoming landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, check out the Night Sky Network page called "We're Mad About Mars!"

Image courtesy of SkySafari.

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