Changing Planet

4 Sky Events This Week: Ghostly Glows and Rocky Worlds

Frosty white water-ice clouds and swirling orange dust storms above a vivid rusty landscape reveal Mars as a dynamic planet in this Hubble Space Telescope view captured in 2004. Credit: NASA and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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.

Early Springtime the Big Dipper stellar pattern in the constellation  Ursa Major appears to stand on its handle high in the northeast sky. Credit: Starry Night Software / A.Fazekas
In early spring, the Big Dipper stellar pattern in the constellation Ursa Major appears to stand on its handle high in the northeast sky. Credit: Starry Night Software/A. Fazekas

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.

Two of the brightest celestial lights at dawn - Venus and the moon have a close encounter just above the southeast horizon on March 27, 2014. Credit: Starry Night Software/ A.Fazekas
Two of the brightest celestial lights at dawn, Venus and the moon, have a close encounter just above the southeast horizon on March 27, 2014. Credit: Starry Night Software/A. Fazekas

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.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter,  Facebook, and his website.


Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.
  • Morgan

    What time is dawn?

  • allen mc daniel

    Love love LOVE this column from NATGEO about daily and weekly astronomical events!! It’s simple enough that I can take advantage of things that happen that are viewable w/the naked eye or w/a small telescope, and it also helps me to expand my knowledge of local skies, constellations, the solar system, and our own Milky Way galaxy. Thanks, NATGEO!!

  • Tina McCullick

    Will I be able to see any of this from my location? It sounds extraordinary thank you

  • Bryan

    What the!

  • allen mc daniel

    ……And thank Andrew F, I almost forgot to say!!

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