Gold Coast sky watchers! Look up Sunday night. Mars at opposition and Space Station to zip overhead.

May 16, 2016 | By | 1 Comment
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(Posted 18 May 2016) This Sunday (22 May 2016) is going to be a busy one for casual sky watchers on the Gold Coast (Queensland, Australia)! The International Space Station is going to pass directly overhead and the planet Mars will reach opposition on the same night. As an added bonus , the two giants of the Solar System Jupiter and Saturn will also be easy to spot using just your unaided eye.

Firstly to the Space Station. It will be briefly visible as a moderately bright star rising in the South West at 6.30 pm. It will get brighter as it rises in the sky passing the star Canopus at 6.33 pm (see below finder chart). Just after 6.34 pm (and as it reaches almost directly overhead), the Space Station will fade from view as it moves into the Earth’s shadow. If you have binoculars, follow it with those and you will see the changing light of sunset reflecting off it just before it disappears into the darkness of night in space.

Transit of Mercury finder chart. Chart prepared for 4.41 p.m. AEST on Saturday 13 November 2032 for Gold Coast, Australia Capital Territory (but will be useful for elsewhere in Eastern Australia). Mercury has just started its ingress of the Sun. Remember to use safe solar viewing methods to watch this event. Chart prepared using the highly recommended Sky Safari Pro tablet app. Used with permission.

International Space Station finder chart prepared for 6.30 – 6.34 pm AEST 22 May 2016 for Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. Chart prepared using the highly recommended Sky Safari Pro tablet app. Used with permission. Additional information from Heavens-Above.com.

In spite of the International Space Station’s really large size (109 m by 51 m), it will only look like a bright star to the unaided eye. While you watch it move up from the horizon, keep in mind that it is travelling at approximately 27,000 kilometers per hours at a height of 400 km.

Northern Gold Coast and Brisbane as seen from the International Space Station. Image courtesy NASA. Taken by astronaut Kjell Lindgren in September 2015.

Northern Gold Coast and Brisbane as seen from the International Space Station. Image courtesy NASA. Taken by astronaut Kjell Lindgren in September 2015.

For the lucky six astronauts living on board the International Space Station, they get a completely different view of the Earth. The above picture taken by NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren in September 2015 shows an amazing view of the Northern Gold Coast and Brisbane as seen from the International Space Station.

Moon, Mars, Saturn and Antares (the brightest star in the ancient Greek constellation Scorpius ‘The Scorpion’) finder chart. Mars reaches opposition tonight and will reach a dazzling magnitude -2.1 (dazzling by Mars standards anyway). Chart prepared for 7 p.m. AEST on Sunday 22 May 2016 for Canberra, Australia Capital Territory (but will be useful for elsewhere in Eastern Australia). Chart prepared using the highly recommended Sky Safari Pro tablet app. Used with permission.

Moon, Mars, Saturn and Antares (the brightest star in the ancient Greek constellation Scorpius ‘The Scorpion’) finder chart. Mars reaches opposition tonight and will reach a dazzling magnitude -2.1 (dazzling by Mars standards anyway). Chart prepared for 6.30 p.m. AEST on Sunday 22 May 2016 for the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (but will be useful for elsewhere in Eastern Australia). Chart prepared using the highly recommended Sky Safari Pro tablet app. Used with permission.

The other predictable highlight for Sunday night will be Mars reaching opposition. This is an astronomical term which refers to the time of the year where Mars is directly opposite the Sun in the sky. This means on Sunday, Mars will rise as the Sun sets and rise the following morning as the Sun rises. Usually this also coincides with a superior planets closest approach to the Earth for the year. Mars egg shaped orbit however means that its closest approach to the Earth will occur on May 31 at a distance of 75.279 million kilometers.

By coincidence, the Moon will be located below Mars on Sunday night. This means you can use the Moon as a celestial signpost to find Mars. Once the sky is relatively dark, just find the Moon and look up. Mars will be the bright reddish coloured star above the Moon. As an aside, Saturn is the pale yellow star located to the right of and below the Moon. Note that the brightness of the Moon will somewhat diminish the apparent brightness of Mars. Try looking at Mars in the following few nights and you will discover how bright it really is.

Mars, Saturn and Antares finder chart for 16 May to 5 September 2016. Look after evening twilight has ended.

Mars, Saturn and Antares finder chart for 16 May to 5 September 2016. Look after evening twilight has ended.

After opposition, Mars will continue to be visible in the Gold Coast evening sky. If you keep an eye on it over the next few months, you will notice that its location dramatically changes in the sky. This is caused by the Earth’s quicker orbital speed ‘leaving’ Mars behind (think of the Earth as the faster of two racing cars racing around the Sun).

Moon, Mars, Saturn and Antares (the brightest star in the ancient Greek constellation Scorpius ‘The Scorpion’) finder chart. Mars reaches opposition tonight and will reach a dazzling magnitude -2.1 (dazzling by Mars standards anyway). Chart prepared for 6.30 p.m. AEST on Sunday 22 May 2016 for the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (but will be useful for elsewhere in Eastern Australia). Chart prepared using the highly recommended Sky Safari Pro tablet app. Used with permission.

Jupiter and Regulus (the brightest star in the ancient Greek constellation Leo the ‘Lion’) finder chart. Chart prepared for 6.30 p.m. AEST on Sunday 22 May 2016 for the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (but will be useful for elsewhere in Eastern Australia). Chart prepared using the highly recommended Sky Safari Pro tablet app. Used with permission.

Jupiter is easy to locate in the Northern sky. Just look for the brightest star. If you happen to own a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, point them towards Jupiter and you will see the below view of its four largest moons. Saturn’s rings will also easily visible in a small telescope.

Jupiter and Regulus (the brightest star in the ancient Greek constellation Leo the 'Lion’) finder chart. Chart prepared for 6.30 p.m. AEST on Sunday 22 May 2016 for the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (but will be useful for elsewhere in Eastern Australia). Chart prepared using the highly recommended Sky Safari Pro tablet app. Used with permission.

Jupiter and its four large Galilean moons. Chart prepared for 6.30 p.m. AEST on Sunday 22 May 2016 for the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (but will be useful for elsewhere in Eastern Australia). Chart prepared using the highly recommended Sky Safari Pro tablet app. Used with permission.

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This website is maintained by Paul Floyd. I am an amateur astronomer (and school teacher) with 25 years experience (as at 2015) in running a range of education and public astronomy outreach activities. As of January 2015, I have been providing astronomy information via the WWW for eighteen years.