Before sunrise tomorrow – April 2, 2018 – see the red planet Mars pair up with the golden planet Saturn in the predawn/dawn sky. Unless you’re a night owl, you’re not likely to see the twosome rising into your southeast sky before going to bed tonight – especially from northerly latitudes. At mid-northern latitudes, Mars and Saturn rise around one and one-half hours after midnight; from temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, these two worlds climb over the southeast horizon about one hour before the midnight hour.
However, if you do see a bright starlike object beneath the waning gibbous moon in the eastern sky before bedtime, that’s the dazzling planet Jupiter, the brightest celestial point of light in the nighttime sky. From northerly latitudes, Jupiter follows the moon into the eastern sky around mid-to-late evening; whereas at southerly latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, the moon and Jupiter are up by early-to-mid evening.
Before dawn tomorrow, on April 2, the moon and Jupiter will have moved over into the western half of sky. If you’re up at that early hour, draw an imaginary line from the moon through Jupiter to locate Mars and Saturn. It’s a long jump from the moon and Jupiter to Mars and Saturn, but you should be able to pick them out, because Mars and Saturn are bright and close together on the sky’s dome.
From anywhere worldwide, get up about 90 minutes (or sooner) before sunrise to view Mars and Saturn in the predawn/dawn sky. At conjunction on April 2, Mars passes a rather scant 1.3o south of Saturn. (For some perspective, 1.3o on the sky’s dome is approximately equal to the width of your little finger at an arm’s length. These two colorful celestial gems will easily fit within the same binocular field for another week or so.
Mars, the 4th planet from the sun, goes eastward in front of all the constellations of the zodiac in nearly two years, while Saturn, the 6th planet outward, takes nearly 30 years to go full circle through the zodiac. So that means Mars laps Saturn, or has a conjunction with Saturn, in periods of roughly two years. The last conjunction of Mars and Saturn happened on August 25, 2016, and the next one will be March 31, 2020.
Mars and Saturn will still be close together when the moon pairs up with Saturn and Mars on the morning of April 7. From North America, you have a good chance of viewing the threesome – the moon, Mars and Saturn – in a single binocular field. Circle April 7 on your calendar and think photo opportunity.
In the meantime, enjoy the close pairing of ruddy Mars and golden Saturn before dawn tomorrow, on April 2, 2018.