This month, look for ruddy colored Mars rising in the east after sunset. It's the brightest object in the eastern sky!
What's Up for January?
Mars, the red planet. Mars is at its closest and brightest for the year this month.
It will rise at sunset and set at dawn and it's a welcome sight after being absent from our early evening skies for a year.
Hello and welcome! I'm Jane Houston Jones at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
It takes one year for Earth to make one complete orbit of the sun. Mars is farther from the sun than Earth is, and it orbits a little slower.
Mars goes around the sun in a little less than 2 Earth years.
Mars oppositions occur when the Earth passes between the sun and Mars. This is also when Mars is closest to Earth in its orbit. But because Mars has an elliptical orbit, opposition occurs every 2 years and 2 months. The next Mars opposition is on January 29th.
If you step outside and look to the east after sunset this month, you'll see a bright orange star-like object rising. That's Mars and it's brighter than anything else in the eastern sky. Through a moderate sized telescope, Mars will look sort of peachy-colored and you can make out some the darker grey features like Syrtis Major.
The north polar cap is the easiest feature to see. When you look at the north polar cap in early January and again on February 18th you'll see the location of the Phoenix lander. It's to the south of the polar cap. On the week before and after January 14th you'll see the side of Mars where the rover, Spirit is located.
And you'll see the location of Opportunity, the other rover, around February 3rd. These same viewing areas will rotate around for you to see every 40 days from now until December. After that, Mars vanishes in the evening twilight. Even with a telescope you won't be able to actually see the rovers or Phoenix, but it's really cool to know they are up there and that you can see the side of Mars where they are located.
Besides the rovers, there are several spacecraft orbiting Mars, and in late 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory will launch on a mission to determine the planet's habitability. Mars has inspired humankind for centuries. Even though it is going to be visible all year long, it will look biggest and brightest this month and into February, so that's the best time for you to view the red planet this year.
You can easily spot two other planets in the night sky this month. Jupiter sets in the west just after sunset by the end of January and Saturn now rises in the east by late evening. In fact if you stay up until midnight at month end, you can see both Mars and Saturn, with the beautiful constellation Leo the lion stretched out between red Mars and the golden Saturn.
You can learn all about NASA's missions at www.nasa.gov
That's all for this month, I'm Jane Houston Jones.
Thanks to the following for submitting images:
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology