Astro Bob: A dawn bracelet of moon and planets April 14-16

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Read more of his work at

The waning moon cruises by the planets the next few mornings to create several attractive arrangements. On Wednesday the 15th it will be in conjunction with Saturn 3° to its south. Face southeast at dawn to see the show! Stellarium

I love naked-eye astronomy. Just walk outside and look. I’ve hauled telescopes to remote viewing sites for decades to hunt for faint galaxies, crazy comets and every lovely thing you can imagine. But I’ve always enjoyed the simple pleasures, too. Like catching the reflection of the moon in Lake Superior or watching the northern lights from the front yard.

In that spirit I want to tell you about a 3-day event happening in the dawn sky beginning tomorrow morning, April 14th. You can probably guess it involves planets. Mars, Saturn and Jupiter are strung out in an arc a fist and a half long in the southeastern sky around 5-5:30 a.m. That alone would be enough to get out of bed for, but for the next couple mornings the moon joins the show. Together the four luminaries create a celestial charm bracelet. My grandmother Estelle wore one that jingled with little metal cutouts of the grandkids’ profiles.

On Tuesday, April 14th you can see all four of Jupiter’s bright moons strung in a line east of the planet in order of their distance from Io to Callisto. This is how the planets and moons will appear in a small telescope. Stellarium

Jupiter is the brightest of the trio followed with Mars and Saturn, both tied for second place. This would be an ideal time to bring out a telescope and go “down the line” looking at one object after another. Start with the moon, which at last quarter phase displays massive numbers of craters much as it does during its evening first quarter phase.


Jupiter’s moons are always fun to watch but take a close look at the planet, too. It’s completely covered in ammonia-rich ice crystal clouds stretched into bands by powerful winds. Two dark, sulfur-rich cloud belts called the North and South Equatorial Belts are an easy catch in a small telescope with a magnification of 40-50x.

Saturn will happily give you a tip of its spectacular rings in the same telescope and also reveal its brightest, largest moon — Titan. Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system after Jupiter’s Ganymede and revolves around the planet in 16 days. Larger scopes will reveal its red color caused by carbon-rich smog in its thick atmosphere.

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, will be visible over the next several mornings to the left or east of Saturn. The moon shines at 9th magnitude and is easily visible in the smallest of telescopes. Stellarium

Mars is still far away from the Earth, the reason it appears very tiny through a telescope. You’ll need to use a magnification around 100x to clearly make its gibbous shape.

Gibbous? Yes! Right now Mars looks like a pink version of the gibbous moon. This month we’re looking way off to one side of the planet’s orbit. From this perspective part of the planet is in shadow and shows a little bit of a phase like the moon does. Jupiter and Saturn also show a slight phase when they lie at a right angle to the Earth and the sun.

When Mars is off to one side of its orbit as seen from Earth, part of the planet is in shadow, and we see it in gibbous phase. When the planet is closer in line with the sun (as shown) it appears fully illuminated. Bob King


You’ll strain to see any details on the planet in a small scope. That’s OK. Be patient. Mars and Earth are drawing closer to each other every day. Come October the planet will be at opposition. Not only will it shine like a lighthouse beacon in the southern sky, but its apparent size will be large enough for us to see surface features — assuming a big dust storm doesn’t blow up and hide them from view.

Enjoy these scenes this week with or without a telescope. Clear skies!

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