Despite a recent Internet hoax that promised a larger-than-life Mars, our neighboring planet does make a good object to watch every other year. This fall, Mars provides a beautiful view.
Mars ascends the eastern sky about 10 p.m. and will be high in the southeast about midnight. Thanks to the planet's rusty -- iron oxide -- surface, its red hue is quite brilliant. It begins September at negative first magnitude (bright) and becomes even brighter toward October. The view improves as Mars goes from 61 million miles away from Earth to 49 million miles away at September's end.
Although the September apparition is very good, the view of Mars should be spectacular in October and early November.
Meanwhile, Venus and Jupiter strive mightily for attention. These planets dance toe-to-toe very low in the west-southwest sky horizon at dusk. As the dark-blue sky blends into night, both planets pop into view.
Effervescent Venus is brighter than Jupiter. Venus, in fact, ends September at negative fourth magnitude (very bright), while Jupiter is at negative first magnitude. This dynamic duo split rapidly during the first half of the month, and before long, both sink into the horizon soon after sunset.
Saturn, the gaseous ring king, is the month's finest morning planet. It is high in the east before dawn and is visible at zero magnitude (bright.)
The autumnal equinox marks the start of fall at 6:23 p.m. Sept. 22, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. That's when the sun appears to pass over the equator from the Northern into the Southern Hemisphere. And although it will be fall for us, our friends in the Southern Hemisphere will start spring.
Sept. 5 -- Astronomer Cole Miller lectures on "Juggling Black Holes" at the astronomy open house, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Afterward, see the night sky through a telescope, weather permitting. 9 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
Sept. 6 -- Ian Jordan of the Space Telescope Science Institute examines the potential for obtaining images of planets near other sunlike stars by blocking out the radiation sources. At the Space Telescope Science Institute's auditorium, Johns Hopkins University campus, Baltimore. 8 p.m. Information: 410-338-4700; hubblesite.org/about_us/public-talks.shtml.
Sept. 10 -- George Doscheck, physicist, discusses the atmosphere of the sun, which extends past Earth in the form of the solar wind. At the National Capital Astronomers meeting at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. Information: capitalastronomers.org.
Sept. 11 -- Astronaut Joe Edwards, pilot of the space shuttle Endeavour in 1998, shares his experiences at the regular meeting of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. 7 p.m. Room 80, Enterprise Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. Information: www.novac.com.
Sept. 17 -- How did the ancient sky gazers of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and the Maya track a solar year better than the Europeans? Find out at the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. Parking available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. Information: 301-650-1463; montgomerycollege.edu/departments/planet.
Sept. 20 -- Massimo Ricotti, an astronomer who examines early galaxy and star formation, lectures at the astronomy open house, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. View the heavens through a telescope afterward, weather permitting. 9 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
Sept. 24 -- Get a firsthand look at the dark night heavens as astronomer Sean O'Brien, of the National Air and Space Museum, provides a real sky tour at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va. 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Parking $4. Information: 540-592-3556; http://www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/skymeado.htm.
Sept. 24 -- The National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers host "Exploring the Sky" at Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 8 p.m. Information: 202-895-6070; capitalastronomers.org; nps.gov/rocr.
Oct. 1 -- The 23rd annual Star Gaze, hosted by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Learn all about astronomy while enjoying the afternoon and night sky through myriad telescopes and binoculars, 3 to 11 p.m. At C.M. Crockett Park in Fauquier County. Information: novac.com.
Blaine Friedlander can be reached at email@example.com.