Planets can sneak up on you. Especially the ones that don’t rise till you’re in bed. Take Mars for instance. It’s been ambling east along the morning zodiac all winter long; today it enters Scorpius, rising around 1:30 a.m. Not two days later, the planet will have a spectacularly close conjunction with Beta Scorpii, the topmost star in the scorpion’s head.
Also known as Graffias, Beta shines at magnitude +2.6 next to the fiery, zero-magnitude Mars. With their striking color contrast, the two would make a superb ring setting: a tiny diamond nestled next to a plump garnet. They’ll be together for several mornings, their separation changing each day: 15 arc minutes on Tuesday (1/2 the diameter of the Full Moon); 9 arc minutes when closest on Wednesday and back out to 23 minutes on Thursday.
It’s a gas to see two celestial objects approach so closely, but this conjunction offers a rare treat. Did you know that Beta is one of the finest double stars in the sky? It has a fifth magnitude companion 14 arc seconds northeast of the primary. Any telescope will split this jewel and show Mars in the same field of view at both high and low magnifications. That’s just so cool — I sure hope you’ll get to see them.
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Mars now measures 10 arc seconds in diameter, small for sure, but big enough to see the larger dark markings and a hint of the north polar cap. The planet is heading for opposition on May 22nd, when it will shine at magnitude -2.0 (brighter than Sirius) with a disk 18.4 arc seconds across, its biggest and closest since 2005.
Let this week’s lovely conjunction serve as a warm-up to the forthcoming season of Mars.