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Dawn gathering of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn headline top things to see in the sky

Dawn gathering of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn headline top things to see in the sky

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The next four or five weeks offer a truly amazing variety of great sky sights. In the next two weeks alone (the period until our next column), we can see splendid rare sights at both dusk and dawn.

Among these sights is the dawn spectacle of planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in their first gathering in 20 years — a gathering that includes on one morning a tight bunching of Jupiter and Mars with the moon.

Also visible is blazing Venus reaching its highest at dusk in eight years and on its way to its closest meeting with the beautiful Pleiades star cluster in hundreds of years.

In addition to Betelgeuse (above Orion’s three-star Belt) now marvelously brightening, we can catch some great passes of the International Space Station near the planets and moon.

Finally, we have a free local public skywatch to help you see close-ups of Venus at its most interesting phase and many other sights through some of the state’s biggest and best telescopes.

Latest dawns for moon and three planets near it: I rarely ask readers to get up before sunrise to try to see some marvelous sight in the heavens. But this time — especially Wednesday of next week — the sight is so remarkable that it would surely be worth losing a bit of sleep. And the good news is that this past weekend’s change to Daylight Saving Time brings us the latest sunrises of the year (along with those soon after the winter solstice).

The climax sight to witness next Wednesday, March 18 is the wondrously compact bunching of the moon, Jupiter and Mars. Your little finger at arm’s length is about 1½ degrees wide and that’s about how far apart brilliant Jupiter and modestly bright Mars will be that morning — with the thin moon crescent roughly the same distance below them.

That morning, Saturn — a little brighter than Mars — is about eight degrees (less than one fist-width at arm’s length) to the lower left of the tight moon-Jupiter-Mars triangle.

By the way, the next morning, Thursday, March 19, an even skinnier moon crescent is not far to the lower left of Saturn while Jupiter and Mars are even closer together.

But where in the sky and at what time, before dawn gets too bright, should you look for these amazing arrangements of moon and planets? The direction to look is in the southeast, quite low — about two fist-widths above the horizon if you’re looking as early as 6 a.m.

At that time there is only the first traces of morning twilight in the east. If you want to get up and peek out a little later, say 6:30 a.m., the dawn glow will have spread and intensified, but Mars and Saturn should still be dimly visible to the unaided eye. Can you still spot bright Jupiter near the moon at 7 a.m., or even closer to sunrise?

The three planets of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn make an interesting and compact pattern every day for the next four weeks.

But be sure to try to look on Friday, May 20, for that is when the Jupiter-Mars pair is at its tightest, with Mars about half the width of your little finger at arm’s length below Jupiter.

Free public skywatch and spectacular Venus: Blazing Venus is peaking at its highest in the west since 2012 at nightfall this month. A marvel you need a telescope to see around Friday, March 20 is Venus showing a phase like a dazzling little half-moon.

And that is exactly the day that the South Jersey Astronomy Club (SJAC) holds its first skywatch of the year at Belleplain State Forest, starting at 7:30 p.m. If weather is too cloudy, the skywatch will be held the next night. For the decision on the weather and directions, go to www.sjac.us or call the Forest Office at (609) 861-2404.

Good space station passes: Look for the bright space station gliding past Saturn at 6:40 a.m. Wednesday and near the moon at 5:52 a.m. Saturday. On March 21, the space station is near Venus at 8:11 p.m.

Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: fschaaf@aol.com.

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