The Seasonal Almanac: Dependable Mars and Spring and Red-Winged Blackbirds

The Seasonal Almanac covers astronomical events and nature, including recognizing the new season by astronomy, the night sky and stars, spring and red-winged blackbirds and bears' habits.

| February/March 1997

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    One of the most abundant birds in North America also serves as one of our first great signs that spring is near: The red-winged blackbird.
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    Comet chart.

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The Seasonal Almanac shares astronomical events in February and March 1997. The approach of a splendidly bright Mars and spring and red-winged blackbirds heralds a new season. 

The most dependable yet fairly infrequent astronomical sight of the next few months is not the fickle and very rare comet that we discussed last issue, but our nearest planetary neighbor, Mars.

Mars made headlines a few months back when several scientists announced that they may have found ancient fossils of something like bacteria — Martian bacteria — in a meteorite believed to have come from Mars. In my column in the next issue I'll discuss that amazing topic of life on Mars (the planet will still be fairly bright and easily found in the evening sky in April and May). But right now I want to describe Mars' current rise to peak brightness and its passage closer to us than it has come for several years.

As February begins, you still have to wait until around mid-evening before Mars rises. But there is no mistaking it once it comes up in the east. Mars is known as "the red planet," and although its color is really more like the orange-gold of fire, this hue becomes quite distinctive when Mars approaches earth and brightens dramatically. This is exactly what is happening in February and March 1997. By March, Mars easily outshines every other point of light in the evening sky except for the single brightest star, Sirius. Sirius is in the south on February evenings and southwest on March evenings, whereas Mars is in the east and southeast at these times. But it is easy to tell them apart because Sirius twinkles (sometimes in lovely glints of different colors) and is predominantly bluish-white, while Mars stares steadily (hardly any twinkling) at us with its orange light.

On March 17, Mars reaches what astronomers call "opposition." This is where a planet appears opposite to the sun's position in the sky: The planet rises at sunset and is visible all night long. It is also around the time of opposition that a planet gets closest to earth, and therefore brightest and biggest-looking in telescopes.

If you have a small telescope, try looking at Mars on different nights, when the planet is rather high above your horizon. Although this year's close approach of Mars brings it slightly nearer than it has been at any time since 1993, it is not one of the thrilling, really close encounters. On March 20, Mars still lies a full 61 million miles from earth, so the globe of Mars will still look small in your telescope. But you may eventually see a few white and gray or green surface features on that ochre globe!

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