Goss: Morning planets race eastward | Local News

Our morning sky presents a good demonstration that the planets do indeed move, and that they all don’t move at the same rate, nor always in the same direction. The planetary trio of Venus, Mars, and Saturn end March and begin April by putting on a great dance that shows this very well. By the end of April, Jupiter’s appearance emphasizes this even more.

Monday morning (March 28) finds Venus glowing unmistakably low in the southeast sixty minutes before sunrise. Immediately below it hovers the waning thin crescent Moon. Between the two, Saturn shines not nearly as brightly as Venus. To Venus’ right, at the same distance it lies above the Moon, is reddish Mars.

Because of the bright twilight, binoculars will help reveal both the solar system’s second largest planet, Saturn, and its second smallest, Mars, which themselves shine at nearly the same brightness. Over the next couple of weeks while they are relatively close to each other, Mars can be readily distinguished from Saturn by its reddish hue, avoiding confusion in spotting these two worlds.

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In just three more mornings, significant planetary positional changes can be noticed. On Thursday (March 31), Saturn will seem to have moved westward, scooting under Venus and approaching Mars. In actuality, Saturn will have moved slightly eastward with both Mars and Venus also heading in that same direction, but at much greater rates. Because of all that sliding eastward, the planetary trio forms a flattened isosceles triangle with Venus pinned at the eastern vertex and Mars at the western tip. As the mornings pass, Venus stretches that triangle eastward, while the slower moving Mars contracts it from the west.

Saturn continues its slow eastward motion with Mars catching up to it. On the morning of April 4, those two planets lie next to each other with red Mars being on the right (ie, west of Saturn). Over the next 24 hours, Mars moves underneath Saturn, appearing closest to it about 7 pm — that won’t be from Virginia. However, planet watchers in India will see those two worlds approach each other by the angular distance of half that of our moon in the sky. No doubt about it, they’ll be close! (However, don’t worry. No collision is imminent. In three dimensional space, they will still be separated by a comfortable 800 million miles — nearly nine times the Earth/Sun distance!)

Look again on the morning of April 5, and it will appear as if Mars and Saturn have traded places. Now Mars will lie to Saturn’s immediate left. This switcheroo occurs because of the orbital motion of the faster moving Mars overtaking the plodding Saturn as viewed from our perch on a moving Earth.

For the rest of April, Mars and Saturn keep moving further apart while Venus continues its slide at a faster rate toward the horizon. On the mornings around April 23, Mars is evenly spaced between Venus and Saturn, with the waning crescent Moon lying west of the trio. Moreover, Jupiter now has entered the scene, shining between Venus and the eastern horizon. Over the next week, Venus appears to continue its slide towards the rising Jupiter.

All of that concussion happens in the morning sky. What about in the evening?

After April 17, little Mercury—the only planet making an early evening appearance until late August—pops out in the west-northwest forty minutes after sunset. Even though it lies in the bright twilight, Mercury shines intensely enough to stand out, appearing a little higher at the same time each evening.

April rewards the early morning and early evening observer with all five bright planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This will definitely be the month for planet watching!

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