Ethereal apparitions from the dusty inner solar system this week seem certain to delight sky-watchers.
Zodiacal lights. Starting Monday, March 24, and continuing through the week, keen-eyed sky-watchers in the mid-northern latitudes will witness the ghostly glow of the zodiacal lights, which will appear about one to two hours after local dusk in the western sky.
The glow results from sunlight reflecting off countless dust particles floating in space, leftovers from the formation of the planets some 4.5 billion years ago.
The best chances to catch the pyramid-shaped beam of light will come in the dark countryside. Mars will be shining just above its apex, offering some help in tracking the lights down.
Springtime dipping. With the moon out of the evening sky on Tuesday, March 25, the distinctive stellar pattern of the Big Dipper appears to stand on its handle, high in the northeastern sky.
Draw an imaginary line between the two stars at the top end of the dipper’s bowl toward the left—and it points to the North Star, Polaris.
Venus joins the moon. Early risers looking eastward at dawn on Thursday, March 27, can catch a pretty pairing between the waning crescent moon and the goddess of love. The two worlds appear less than 4 degrees apart, about the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length.
Their proximity in the sky, of course, is just an optical illusion, as the moon is 226,179 miles (364,000 kilometers) from Earth. Venus, meanwhile, sits some 65.2 million miles (105 million kilometers) away.
Later the same day at 2:34 p.m. EDT, the moon reaches its perigee—its closest approach to Earth in its orbit—some 227,238 miles (365,703 kilometers) away.
Mars and Spica. Late at night on Sunday, March 30, look for a close encounter between the red planet and the bright blue-white star Spica, the lead member of the constellation Virgo, the Maiden.
Visually the stellar duo will be quite stunning, thanks to their wildly divergent colors. If you have good atmospheric conditions, a small backyard telescope will show off some of the largest surface features on Mars. But the best views of the red planet are still to come, in April, when the planet’s apparent diameter will be some 20 percent wider.