May 14, 2022: Four bright planets – Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn – stretch across the eastern sky before sunrise. One evening before its total eclipse, the bright moon is in the southeast as night falls.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 5:32 a.m. CDT; Sunset, 8:03 p.m. CDT. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.
The sun is in the sky for over 14 hours, 30 minutes. Daylight’s length continues to grow for over five weeks, but only 40 minutes until the solstice.
The four bright morning planets continue to stretch along the eastern horizon. The gap from Venus to Saturn continues to widen. This morning it is 48.4°.
Venus moves eastward about 10 times faster than Saturn. Earth’s Twin Planet passed Mars on March 6 followed by a conjunction with Saturn on March 29. Venus passed Jupiter on April 30. It continues stepping eastward at about one degree each day.
Mars moves at about half the speed of Venus. It passed Saturn on April 5. This morning it is 8.6° to the upper right of Jupiter. The Red Planet passes the Jovian Giant on May 29.
Venus, Jupiter, and Mars are moving eastward and away from a slower moving Saturn, 27.2° to the upper right of Mars. Saturn is nearly 25° up in the southeast.
Mars captivated our attention during most of the 20th Century. Telescopic observations of possible canals, science fiction stories of human trips to Mars and Martian visits to Earth sparked our interest.
Robot spacecraft “flew” past Mars during the 1970s. Their cameras revealed canyons, enormous mountains, dry river beds, and craters, but no canals. Landers and rovers, some still in action, studied the planet from the surface. Spacecraft continue to monitor the planet’s changing surface from space.
The planet continues to attract our interest. Is there life on Mars? We’re still not sure. The chemicals are there, but are they from living things or chemical reactions?
Through a telescope, Mars is not exciting. Even when it is nearby, yet millions of miles away, the surface is a challenge to see. Polar caps and large surface features are visible.
The best observations occur near the time of the planet’s opposition, when Earth is between the planet and the sun. Some oppositions are better than others. The planet’s orbit is not a perfect circle, but slightly elliptical, enough so that the planet is sometimes closer at opposition than at other times. When the opposition is closest to Earth, Mars is near perihelion – closest to the sun.
At perihelic opposition, the last one occurred in 2018, the planet was less than 40% of the distance between the earth and the sun. These close oppositions occur every 15 to 17 years.
For the solar system a measurement known as an astronomical unit (A.U.), about 93 million miles and Earth’s average separation from the sun, is used to mark distance. Within the solar system, the A.U. is the fundamental measuring stick. It’s easy to compare the distance of a planet from the sun with Earth’s distance. Earth is one A.U. from the sun. Jupiter is 5.2 A.U. So, Jupiter is 5.2 times Earth’s distance. The comparison is easy and like any other unit of measurement, combines other values into larger units and reduces writing long numbers.
It was valuable before the invention of the telescope and the ability to measure distances, before actually measuring the distance of an A.U. Today, it is valuable to communicate distances from the sun and between the solar system’s family.
Near its farthest point from the sun – aphelion – an aphelic opposition, Mars is nearly 0.7 A.U. from Earth. The next opposition at this distance occurs in 2027.
In the current alignment, the next Martian opposition is December 7, 2022. This opposition is at the middle of distances, 0.54 A.U. from Earth at its closest.
Damian Peach, a British sky watcher, has an incredible collection of photos of Mars and other planets. These images show far more than the human eye can perceive at a telescopic eyepiece. He has photos of Martian oppositions beginning in 2002. Take a look.
One evening before its total lunar eclipse that is visible from a large swath of Europe, Africa, Atlantic Ocean, and the Americas, the bright moon is over 20° up in the southeast as night falls.
Spica is 16.1° to the upper right of the lunar orb.
The Scorpion’s pincers, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, are to the lower left of the moon. This evening, the moon’s brightness may overwhelm them. They are easier to see tomorrow evening during the eclipse.
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