If ever there was a “maverick” among the planets with the naked eye, this title would certainly go to Mars.
Just nine months ago, Mars came within 62.43 million kilometers of Earth, the closest it had been to us since August 2003, and it will not be that close again until September 2035. Mars appeared three times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in our sky and even rivaled Jupiter in splendor. In fact, Mars ranked as the third brightest night object behind the moon and Venus.
But that was then, it is now.
Related: The brightest planets in the July night sky: How to see them (and when)
Venus points the way
At this point in time, Mars is on the other side of the brightness spectrum. Sunday night (July 1
You will be able to use a very conspicuous benchmark to make a positive identification, for the first object that attracts your attention will definitely be dazzling Venus. Once you have found it, look around a degree to its immediate left, and you will see Mars appear as a yellow-orange, though by no means unique bright star.
Do not expect the conspicuous object that adorned our sky in the early fall of 2020. Instead, Mars right now is farther away from us at a distance of 231 million miles (371 million km). So Mars will only appear about 1.7% as bright as it was nine months ago and only 0.5% as bright as Venus.
In fact, by virtue of currently shining in the order of +1.8, Mars has dropped in rank to the category of a second-order object; To make sure you look positive, I would strongly recommend that you use binoculars.
The moon is floating nearby
Another object that appears in the general vicinity of the two planets in the fading evening darkness will be the moon. Two days after the new phase, it will appear as an arc of light, only 4% illuminated and will be located about half a dozen degrees to the right of the two planets. If your clenched fist measures approx. 10 degrees in one arm’s length, the moon and the two planets are separated by approx. a half fist.
All three objects will remain in the west-northwest sky for about 90 minutes after sunset. Mars is actually almost in the middle between two other remarkable celestial objects. 45 minutes after sunset, the sky may still be too bright to see the moon and Mars easily with the naked eye, so already noticed you will probably need binoculars. But after another 15 minutes have passed, the sky will be dark enough so that you can easily be able to identify them with your naked eyes, even though they are all lower in the sky.
The scene will have changed markedly the next evening.
July 12 and beyond
On Monday, July 12, the moon will have expanded slightly to 9% illuminated and will have shifted to a place almost 7 degrees at the top left of the two planets. But the positions of the planets have also changed; the distance between them will have been halved with Venus now sitting about half a degree to the right of Mars.
Venus will continue to grow more prominently – albeit rather slowly – in the western evening sky through the balance in 2021.
As for Mars, it will continue to be apparent as an evening object for a few weeks or so, close past the bright bluish star of the 1st magnitude, Regulus on July 29th. But as we move into August, it will be lost in bright sunset glows and will then take a sort of break as it transitions to the morning sky and eventually reappears in the early morning sky around Thanksgiving to set the stage for its gradual return. to prominent place in 2022.
Joe Rao works as an instructor and guest lecturer in New York Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy to Natural history magazine, that The farmer’s almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.