Before you go to bed on the nights of March 17 and 18, let the moon show you the red planet Mars. At northerly latitudes – like those in the U.S., Canada, and Europe – the waning gibbous moon, Mars and the star Spica rise over the east to southeast horizon by mid-to-late evening. South of the equator, the moon, Mars and Spica rise much sooner after sunset, so you can catch the threesome over the eastern horizon by early-to-mid evening.
On the other hand, if it’s early to bed and early to rise for you, you might want to view this waning gibbous moon, Mars and Spica – brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden – in the morning hours instead. They’ll all be up when dawn breaks.
You can easily distinguish Mars from Spica, even though both look like stars. Mars is brighter than Spica now, as Earth has swept up behind the red planet in orbit and the distance between our two worlds has decreased. Plus Mars exhibits a ruddy hue while Spica sparkles blue-white. You might have difficulty seeing their colors on these moonlit nights. If so, use your binoculars if you have them, or wait until the moon moves away.
Once the moon drops out of the evening sky, by late March, you can still find Mars and Spica easily by star-hopping to them. At northerly latitudes, use the Big Dipper to “arc to the star Arcturus, then drive a spike to Spica.” That is, follow the curve of the Dipper’s handle to these stars. Mars will be next to Spica.
If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, it may be easier for you to use the constellation Corvus the Crow to locate Spica and Mars.
With each passing day, Mars and Spica will rise earlier and earlier into the evening sky. Moreover, Mars will brighten all the while, to beam at its brilliant best for the year in April 2014. By the end of the first week of April, Mars will rise at sunrise and will set at sunrise, to adorn the night sky all night long. Why? Because that is when Earth will pass between Mars and the sun!
Bottom line: Identify Mars using the moon as your guide on March 17 and 18, 2014. Mars appears near Spica, a bright star. Both Mars and Spica will appear near the moon on those nights. Earth is coming up behind Mars in orbit now. In early April, we’ll pass between Mars and the sun. That’ll be the best time to see Mars in two years!