I've been watching Mars approach the Pleiades for the past few weeks. Maybe you have, too. On Sunday night (Feb. 28) the Red Planet will dangle below the cluster like a spider from its web. The Pleiades is the easiest star cluster to find in the night sky because it's big and bright. And Mars is one of the easiest planets to identify because of its color. Together, they're an eye magnet.
Both cluster and planet shine together a little more than halfway up the southwestern sky around 7:30-8 p.m. local time in early March. If you have any doubt about where to look, just shoot a line from Betelgeuse in Orion through Aldebaran, and it will take you straight to Mars. All three of these celestial gems have nearly the same orange-red color. The next clear night, look for subtle differences in their hues. Is one more orange? More red?
On Sunday Feb. 28, Mars and the Pleiades will be a little more than 3° apart and fit in the same field of view of any pair of standard binoculars. They'll be a half-degree closer (2.75°) when they're in conjunction on March 3, then slowly separate thereafter.
Since the two are paired up for a while, it's a good opportunity to take a closer look at the Pleiades. Without optical aid most people can see six stars, but dozens more come into view in binoculars. To my eye its stars have a fiery-white appearance like burning magnesium.
The cluster is located 444 light-years from Earth and loaded with hot, blue suns. They came into existence about 250 million years ago inside a nebula similar to the Orion Nebula. Denser pockets of gas and dust within the nebula collapsed to form hundreds of stars. At the same time of the Pleiades' birth, Earth was experiencing an ecological catastrophe known as the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, when nearly three-quarters of land and marine species went disappeared forever. Possible causes for the calamity include a small asteroid impact, massive volcanic eruptions or large releases of methane from ocean microbes. Had the extinction event not happened we might still have trilobites around.
Mars is quite distant from the Earth right now compared to last fall, when the two planets stood face-to-face on the same side of the sun. But it still shines at 1st magnitude like many of the brightest stars. Through about March 12, skywatchers in the Americas face the hemisphere of Mars where the Perseverance rover landed. That means you can stare at Mars and imagine the rover checking out it new digs.
I've added a couple new images to help you visualize the scene including one captured by one of the rover's hazard cameras (Hazcam) showing the descent vehicle crash-landing in the distance after its job was finished. Yes, humans make a messes (some necessary) wherever we set foot.
I thought you'd also enjoy a recent video my friend Greg shared with me. In it, narrator Scott Manley points out details of the landing you may have missed. You also learn the bad news that the microphone that was supposed to record the sounds of touchdown failed. That leaves one working microphone on the Red Planet.
Perseverance has already taken hundreds of photos. News ones are uploaded every day. You can see them all at the raw image archive. It's fun to browse and probably the closest thing to being there.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.