Mars is lighting up the night sky as the planet heads toward an unusually close approach to Earth on Oct. 6.
If you look low in the eastern sky on any clear evening this week, soon after darkness falls, you’ll see a fiery, pumpkin-hued “star” blazing brilliantly. Despite the “Red Planet” moniker, the weeks surrounding Mars’ close approach are a perfect time to appreciate the planet’s true hue, a yellowish orange, the color of a dry desert under a high sun — which is exactly what you’re looking at.
Astronomers use a scale called magnitude to rate the brightness of celestial objects and these days, Mars is shining at an eye-popping magnitude of -2.6. The lower the magnitude, the brighter the object, with stars on the threshold of naked-eye visibility classed as sixth magnitude. The most brilliant objects in the sky have negative magnitudes: Sirius, the brightest