Astro Bob: Red eyes of Taurus are upon us!
Mars is really getting bright. For the next few nights, it lines up with Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull and 'looks' straight at us.
Staying up too late has its benefits. I should have been in bed before midnight Monday night, Sept. 19, but I was writing and working on photos instead. To clear my brain before turning in I stepped outside and looked up. To my delight and surprise Mars and Aldebaran looked right back. Tucked in a gap between trees they glared like a pair of bright, red eyes.
The fact that they were both level to the horizon and nearly the same color really caught my attention. Yes, I'm a simple man. Dangle a pattern of lights in front of my eyes, and I'll follow them anywhere. Seriously, they looked cool, so I quick set up a camera to take a photo so you could see for yourself.
The pair will hang together like this for a few more nights, giving us some good viewing opportunities. That's not all. The duo luminaries are joined by two of the brightest star clusters in the sky: the Pleiades, shaped like a tiny dipper standing on its handle, and the V-shaped Hyades cluster. Both look truly fantabulous in binoculars.
Mars doesn't rise until after 10 o'clock local time, so you'll have to be out around 11 p.m. or later to check out the scene. When you do, you'll see how much brighter the planet is compared to the star. Mars shines at magnitude -0.4, brighter than every nighttime sun except Canopus (visible from the southern U.S.) and Sirius. It even outshines neighboring Capella in Auriga the Charioteer. Aldebaran is about a magnitude and a half fainter at 0.9.
In mythological drawings, Aldebaran is depicted as the right eye of Taurus the Bull , one of Greek god Zeus's favorite disguises whenever he'd try to pull a fast one. At least temporarily, Mars makes a fine, substitute second eyeball. The planet and Earth are slowly drawing nearer to one another and will come closest during its current visibility cycle on Dec. 8. Befriend the planet and you'll see it wax brighter than Sirius by the end of November.
While we're talking Mars, NASA's Webb Space Telescope took its first images of the Red Planet in two different colors (wavelengths) of infrared light. Because the telescope is optimized for faint targets, astronomers had to use special observing techniques to prevent overloading its sensitive light detectors. Mars is, after all, very bright right now. Stay up late, and you'll see what I mean :)