OK, now it really is time to start watching for Mars. No, it won't look as big as a full Moon--it never does, regardless of what you read on the Internet. It won't even be as bright as it was in 2003, but will still be brighter than any star.
About every other year Mars spends six or so months in our evening sky. It is now up by 8 p.m. and rising a few minutes earlier each night. It then spends the rest of night moving across the sky and is high in the west by morning.
Some years Mars appears brighter than others, and this year is average. All planets circle the Sun in elliptical rather than circular orbits, so at times they are a bit nearer the Sun and at other times further. Thus sometimes Earth and Mars pass nearer each other than other times, and the nearer they pass the larger and brighter Mars looks.
Four years ago Mars and Earth passed about as close as they ever can, and Mars was dazzling--brighter even than Jupiter. It won't be that bright again until 2016, 2018, and 2020. The best of those three in 2018 will approach what we saw in 2003.
So, let's see how to find Mars which, like the Sun, Moon and other planets, rises approximately in the east. Known as the red planet, Mars does appear reddish, but so does Orion's bright star Betelgeuse. And by coincidence, the two now rise at the same time and rather near each other. As the star is rising almost due east, the planet is coming up 20 degrees to its left--twice the width of your fist held at arm's length. Even though Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars, Mars is noticeably brighter.
Viewed with naked eyes or binoculars Mars looks like a bright star, however, through a telescope it appears as a small red-tinted ball. If you've seen Saturn in a scope, Mars now appears about the same size. In larger scopes some surface features might be discernible as well as one, or possibly both, polar caps. (It's spring on Mars so neither pole is tilted toward the Sun or us.)
For the next several weeks Mars will continue to rise earlier and grow brighter. It comes closest to Earth Dec. 18, and will be at its brightest the entire last half of December. When it reaches opposition (opposite the Sun from Earth) on Dec. 24 it will rise at sunset, be visible all night, and set at sunrise--a nice holiday gift from Mother Nature.
• Sky Calendar.
3 Mon. evening: Earliest sunset at latitude 30 degrees north.
5 Wed. morning: The crescent Moon is below the star Spica and to
the right of Venus in the southeast.9 Sun.: The Moon is new.
13 & 14 Fri.: The Geminid meteor shower peaks with the best viewing being from mid evening after the Moon sets until sunrise.
17 Mon.: The Moon is at 1st quarter.
19 Wed.: Saturnalia, ancient Roman festival celebrating Saturn.
• Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Jupiter is sinking into the setting Sun and Mars is up by 8 p.m. Morning: Brilliant Venus dominates the eastern sky with Saturn high in the south and Mars high in the west.
Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or email@example.com. See the Stargazer website at stargazerpaul.com.