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Planetary Conjunction: Mars and Saturn

Starting on March 30th, 2020 and for the next two mornings, Mars and Saturn will be about 1 degree apart. The closest approach will be on the morning of the 31st, with a separation of approximately 55 arc-minutes (0.9 degrees.)

The pair rise around 3:50 AM in the southeast, and for observers near 40 degrees latitude will reach an altitude of approximately 25 degrees by sunrise around 6:40 AM. Jupiter is about 6 degrees to the West of the pair, making this a good time to observe all three planets.

A planetary conjunction is the term commonly used for when planets appear to move close to each other in the sky. For this reason they're often also referred to as "close approaches." Technically the term conjunction only refers to the right ascension coordinates of objects, and the term appulse is more accurate, but the term conjunction is more commonly used to refer to planets that appear close to each other in the sky.

Both planets are fairly far away from Earth in their orbits at the time, so will not be very large. Saturn will be at about 29% of its maximum angular size, and Mars at about 13%.

At around 40x magnification both planets should both fit in the field of view of a standard Plossl eyepiece. To find a suitable eyepiece, simply divide the focal length of your telescope by 40, and look for an eyepiece with a focal length similar to the result. To get a closer look at surface details like Saturn's rings, higher magnifications around 120-300x would be preferable.

Binoculars will be able to view both planets simultaneously, but they do not have enough magnification to make out much detail aside from Saturn's moons. Most telescopes will be suitable to view both planets due to their brightness and the low magnification required to view them simultaneously. 40x magnification works well in most scopes, but a larger aperture will provide a brighter and clearer image. For viewing surface detail at 120-300x magnification a telescope around 90-150mm of aperture would be suitable.

Most small sensor planetary cameras will require a wide field telescope to fit both planets in the field of view. A larger sensor camera like the StarShoot G10 or a DSLR should provide enough field of view on telescopes up to about 1000mm of focal length.

After the planetary conjunction, you might notice a bright "extra star" in the Pleiades (M45) on the nights of April 2nd and 3rd. But this "Eighth Sister" is not a star - it's the planet Venus! This would be a great time to photograph the Pleiades - like you've probably never seen it before - posing with this planetary interloper.

Some great telescopes and accessories for viewing these events are listed here.

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Planetary Conjunction; Mars and Saturn

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