After a months-long drought without any bright planets visible, the night sky is starting to perk up. Brilliant Jupiter is visible all night, and now Mars and Saturn can be seen if you're willing to stay up past midnight.
If your weather is clear, look at the southeastern sky around 3 a.m. your local time, and you'll see a striking bright triangle of objects. The planet Mars is to the right and Saturn is to the left, and suspended below them is the bright red star Antares. Observers in the Southern Hemisphere will see this pattern rotated and much earlier in the evening: Mars above Saturn, Antares to the right.
Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius, and the 15th brightest star in the sky. It is one of the few stars to show color, being one of the three brightest red stars in the sky. Aldebaran and Betelgeuse are the other two. [Video: See Jupiter and More in the March 2016 Sky]
Mars and Antares
"Antares" means "opposite Mars," referring to the star's red color. This year, Mars and Antares will be close together in the sky, making this comparison very clear.
Currently Mars is very close to the star Graffias, which marks the upper pincer of the Scorpion. A few nights ago, Mars and Graffias were so close that I needed binoculars to see them as separate objects.
Although Mars and Saturn are both moving, they will remain in a triangular formation with Antares throughout the spring and summer, though the shape of the triangle will change.
With the naked eye, both Mars and Saturn are very bright. Mars is brighter than anything currently in the night sky except the planet Jupiter and the moon. This is mainly because Mars is relatively close to Earth. Saturn is less bright because, although much larger than Mars, it is 11 times farther away.
Saturn and Mars up close
Seen through a telescope, the planets are all surprisingly small: They appear bright only because they are relatively close to Earth.
Saturn is a tiny, perfect jewel, its globe surrounded by its bright rings. Binoculars magnifying 25 times will show that Saturn is not a disk, but rather an oval. A magnification over 100 times is needed to show the ring system in detail.
Mars is even tinier in a telescope than is Saturn. Currently, the Red Planet's disk is only 11 arc seconds in diameter. By comparison, the moon's disk appears 160 times that size. As Mars moves toward its closest approach to Earth on May 30, the Red Planet will grow in size to 19 arc seconds, or slightly more than one-hundredth the diameter of the moon.
To put this in perspective, this means that Mars, at its largest this year, is about the same size as an average crater on the moon. This is why views of Mars through amateur telescopes are often disappointing.
Details of Mars
On a night with exceptionally steady air when Mars is at its closest, an observer with patience and a trained eye can make out the Red Planet's white polar cap and a few dusky shadings on Mars' predominantly peach-colored disk. One side of Mars has a lot more dusky markings than the other, the most prominent being Syrtis Major. This huge, dark triangle is about halfway between the landing sites of the Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity.
Don't expect to see "canals" on Mars. Sometimes reported by early astronomers, these apparent straight lines are now thought to be optical illusions caused by the human brain's desire to see order in random blobs.
In the last 20 years, amateur planetary observers have learned to use webcams and sophisticated computer software to record images far clearer than were possible in earlier times with even the largest telescopes. Because Mars' rotation period is only 37 minutes longer than that of Earth, observers at a single location on Earth need over a month to elapse before they see the same face of Mars in their telescopes.
Because of this, amateur astronomers around the world organized an "International Mars Patrol" in the 1960s, so that the entirety of Mars' surface was under scrutiny at all times. Astronomers in North America today rely on observers such as Anthony Wesley in Australia, Christopher Go in the Philippines and Damian Peach in England to fill in the gaps in Martian longitude.
One of the reasons for the Mars Patrol is to track changes in Mars' weather. Clouds often form at high latitudes and along the sunrise terminator. Huge sandstorms sweep across the Martian deserts obscuring the dark surface markings. These changes can occur with surprising rapidity.
Mars is truly a living world with a constantly changing face, and only amateur astronomers have the time, equipment and geographical distribution needed to study it.
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