If your work involves staring at a screen all day, the sky is giving you ample reason to savor some much needed respite from the grind this month. On Thursday, an annular eclipse in parts of the far northern hemisphere will produce a “Ring of Fire,” when the moon crosses the sun’s facade, and pretty much right after that, on Sunday, June 13, the moon and Mars will hang in the sky closely together, visible with the naked eye or binoculars.
The two celestial bodies will come together in what’s known as a conjunction, which occurs when two objects achieve “the same right ascension on our sky’s dome,” per EarthSky. You can think of it as the two celestial bodies maintaining the same longitude for a fleeting moment, only to drift away from each other again.
What is a conjunction?
A conjunction, broadly defined, occurs when two celestial objects appear closer together than usual. Sometimes they’re visible to onlookers on the ground, and as EarthSky notes, “objects in conjunction will likely be visible near each other for some days.”
However there are two kinds of conjunctions—those we can see, and those we cannot. Inferior conjunctions occur when planets pass between the sun and the Earth, rendering them invisible, due to the sun’s glare. Superior conjunctions—like the one occurring next week—involve the opposite, and see objects traverse an orbit behind the sun, rendering it visible, on occasion, to people down below.
EarthSky illustrates the phenomenon in more concrete terms, specifically in reference to two planets, Venus and Mercury, writing:
It’s kind of fun to imagine them on an endless cycle of passing in front of the sun, as seen from Earth, then behind it, and back again, like watching squirrels running around a tree.
Other planets, such as “Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune…can never be at inferior conjunction,” because they don’t pass in front of the sun. Luckily, for anyone interested in a relatively effortless view of the moon aligned with the Red Planet next week, the superior conjunction path will make both objects appear luminous, and therefore visible, in the night sky.
How to see the conjunction of Mars and the Moon
Of course, this all hinges on where you are, and those in the western United States will have a better chance of catching the alignment than people on the East Coast. Once the moon and Mars sync up, the moon will appear pretty close to the Red Planet.
Generally speaking, looking toward the western sky around dusk will be your best bet of catching the two bodies. The moon isn’t exactly radiating dramatic light at the moment, and is expected to be at only 12 percent of its peak brilliance on the night of June 13. Still, in an environment free of enough light pollution, the cosmos can come into view.
Luckily, you can plug your coordinates into In The Sky’s tool to figure out exactly when the objects will become visible and when they’ll ultimately sink beneath the horizon. This isn’t the kind of event that requires fancy a telescope, (although a few handy apps couldn’t hurt) as the proximity of the two objects won’t allow for a hyper-close glimpse. It’s best to opt for binoculars or your own two eyes, actually.