Planets change spring sky

Familiar star patterns in the evening sky have been dramatically changed by the presence of two bright planets in the neighbourhood.

You could be forgiven for thinking you were seeing double when glancing at Leo where Saturn lies very close to its brightest star, Regulus.

And just a short distance away, Mars has distorted the shape of Gemini, making a sharp dog’s leg angle with that constellation’s leading lights, Castor and Pollux.

This star chart shows the planets on April 23. Click on it to enlarge.

At the time of posting, Saturn is just a little over 2°, or four moon’s widths, from Regulus. At magnitude 0.5, the planet also outshines the star which has a brightness of 1.3. But they make a striking pair sitting at the base of the backward question mark that indicates the head of the celestial Lion.

Mars is shining at magnitude 1.1, virtually the same brightness as nearby Pollux, but brighter than Castor, which has a magnitude of 1.6. It lies just half a degree further from Pollux than does Castor, making the new pattern a distinctive one.

The Red Planet will not stay close to the Twins for long. It is rapidly heading eastwards and steadily fading following its bright Opposition last December. But it still has a couple of treats in store before it disappears completely into the twilight in the late summer.

The next constellation Mars moves into is Cancer, and on May 22, now shining at 1.4, it will move directly in front of that constellation’s famous star cluster Praesepe. This is a great cloud of faint stars which together appear as a bright blur in the heart of the Crab.

After a couple of nights’ lodgings in the cluster, which is also known as Messier 44, Mars heads on its way again. It catches up with Saturn, itself moving eastwards but more majestically, in Leo on July 9. If you then catch them low in the twilight after sunset, they will form a tight pairing, with just two-thirds of a degree separating them.

Don’t forget you can read more about the Red Planet in Skymania’s own special guide to Mars.

Chart produced with Starry Night Pro.

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