Mars: The Red Planet is at its closest approach to Earth since 2003
By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Mars has always been a source of interest and wonder to the human race. Even in prehistoric times the glowing red orb grabbed attention in the night sky – its bright red/orange color is hard to miss. On July 31, 2018, it was at its closest approach to the Earth since 2003, and the closest it will be until 2035.
The month of March is named after this planet, and the Greeks called it the god of war, probably also because of its color. Mars has also been a favorite target of science fiction writers over the years, from H. G. Wells, “The War of the Worlds“ in 1890, to Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles“ in 1950, right up to 2011, “The Martian” by Andy Weir.
All this is most likely due to astronomer Percival Lowell, who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1894 to study Mars. Lowell thought he saw structures on the surface and he dubbed them “canals.” This single observation fueled a century of speculation and exploration that postulated the planet was teeming with intelligent life.
Of course, we now know that he was dead wrong. Even through large and sophisticated telescopes, Mars is a challenging target. It is small, only about half the size of Earth and far away, on average about 130,000,000 miles from our home planet. This makes it extremely difficult to observe any detail on its surface, and atmospheric disturbances cause it to jump around and distort at the eyepiece. I think we can forgive Percival for his blunder, but he should have been more skeptical until better data was in.
All this changed with the success of Mariner 4, humanity’s first close approach to the Red Planet. In July of 1964, this grainy photo of the surface of Mars was sent back to earth by the little spacecraft, and we have been launching rockets to the fourth planet from the sun ever since. All told, humanity has launched nearly 60 spacecraft towards Mars with about half of those being successful or mostly successful. Space flight is hard. We currently have eight operational orbiters or landers in the vicinity of Mars and one on its way. Insight, a new Mars lander, should arrive on November 26, 2018.
Mars is pretty easy to spot and is currently in the constellation Capricorn. It is especially easy right now since it is at its closest earthly approach in over a decade. If you go outside on a clear night after about 10 p.m. and look east, you are not going to miss it. To the naked eye it looks like a very bright red or orange star rising with the night over the eastern horizon.
It is blazing at magnitude -2.7 right now, which rivals the brightness of Venus at -4.4 and is much brighter than the brightest star Sirius, which shines at magnitude -1.4. You can resolve Mars as a disk in a good pair of binoculars if you mount them on a tripod. In perfect conditions might be able to make out the polar ice on its surface. In a small telescope, say 2- to 4-inch aperture, and under very good conditions, you might glimpse some of the dark features of the planet.
All the planets are cool to see for yourself, but none seem to capture our imagination as much as Mars. People who visit my telescope during star parties always ask about it first. On most nights they are disappointed, either because it isn’t in the sky or conditions blur it to a dancing orange dot in the eyepiece.
But, every so often, we get one of those magical nights when the clouds part and the air settles and the secrets of Mars are revealed to an awestruck observer. Get out there and try for yourself and let me know if you are one of the lucky ones!
Till next time!
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)