The Red Planet briefly disappeared behind the moon for skywatchers in North America on Tuesday (Feb. 18), providing a rare celestial treat for early risers and astrophotographers.
This game of cosmic "peekaboo" began early Tuesday morning, when the sun had already begun to rise above the U.S. East Coast and Mars had mostly faded into the daylight. However, skywatchers out west had a much better view of the planet as it was "eclipsed" by the moon — but those observers had to wake up well before the crack of dawn to witness the event, which is known as an occultation.
In Sedona, Arizona, astrophotographer Victor Rogus captured a video of Mars peeping out from behind the moon at the end of the occultation. "Early this morning, we saw the planet Mars as it rose over the dark limb of our moon," Rogus told Space.com. "The occultation started, for us in Sedona, while the moon and planet were low on the horizon and in the trees. However, the pair were placed high in the sky for the end of the event," about an hour later.
About 200 miles (370 kilometers) down the road in Tucson, Arizona, astrophotographer B.G. Boyd caught an unobstructed view of the beginning of the occultation, which started there at 4:38 a.m. local time.
Boyd's photos show the Red Planet inching toward the lower limb of the waning, crescent moon. At the time, the moon's face was about 24% illuminated by sunlight.
For skywatchers in the rest of the world, where the moon did not pass directly in front of Mars, the celestial pair made a close approach in the night sky. Mars was in conjunction with the moon, meaning the two objects shared the same celestial longitude, at 8:17 a.m. EST (1317 GMT).
The moon will once again be in conjunction with Mars on March 18, on the same day that our natural satellite will be in conjunction with Jupiter and Saturn. The three planets will huddle around the waning crescent in the predawn sky.
Mars is currently shining at a relatively faint magnitude of +1.2, or about as bright as the star Deneb, which marks the tail of the constellation Cygnus, the swan. To observe Mars in daylight, skywatchers need a telescope or binoculars. The Red Planet will be at its brightest in October, when it reaches opposition, or the point in its orbit where the planet is directly opposite the sun in Earth's sky.
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