Use the moon to find the brilliant planet Mars, the planet orbiting the sun one step beyond Earth’s orbit, tonight (January 12, 2012) and tomorrow night. You’ll have to stay up fairly late to do this – somewhere between 10 to 11 p.m., to see this awesome twosome rise over your eastern horizon. Tonight, the waning gibbous moon rises first, and then Mars follows the moon into the sky perhaps an hour or so thereafter. Tomorrow night, Mars will rise first, with the moon following.
Mars will be the brightest object in the moon’s vicinity for the next few nights.
Or, if you’re more of an early bird than a night owl, you could look for Mars near the moon in the wee hours before daybreak. Possibly, you could mistake Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo, for Mars – except that Mars noticeably outshines Regulus.
Photo credit: NSSDC Photo Gallery Mars
You can also distinguish Mars from Regulus by color. Mars looks orange, while Regulus sparkles blue-white. If having difficulty discerning color with the unaided eye, try your luck with binoculars, which will make the colors more obvious.
At present, Mars resides at the border of the constellations Leo and Virgo, not far from the Leo star Denebola. Although the waning moon is rising later each night – and will drop out of this section of the starry sky after a few more days – Mars will remain near Denebola (“the Lion’s Tail”) for the rest of January 2012.
Mars will execute a retrograde loop (moving westward) in front of the backdrop stars from January 24 until April 15, 2012. Look for Mars to be quite close to the Leo star Regulus by the end of the retrograde. In the middle of this retrograde – in early March 2012 – you’ll see Mars shining at its brightest for the year. In fact, an outer planet like Mars moves in a retrograde manner whenever Earth is passing between that planet and the sun, bringing that planet closest to us so that it is brightest.
Are you familiar with the famous Big Dipper asterism? If so, draw an imaginary line through the Big Dipper pointer stars to locate the constellation Leo and the planet Mars, as depicted in the chart on the left. Mars will leave Leo and enter Virgo on June 21, 2012.
Bottom line: Beginning tonight (January 12, 2012) and for the next several nights, the red planet Mars will be the brightest light near the moon. Let the moon show you Mars these next few nights and early mornings, and then watch the red planet brighten to its greatest brilliancy for this two-year period in early March 2012!constellation leo, the red planet Mars, planet mars <BR/>