By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
This week I thought I would talk a little bit about Mars and point you in the right direction to view this wondrous little neighbor.
Mars has gotten a huge amount of attention from NASA over the last couple of decades and we, as informed taxpayers, should probably try to understand why. Mars is the fourth planet out from the sun, about 141.6 million miles from our star or about 33.9 million miles, on average, from Earth. It is truly our next door neighbor in the solar system.
Mars has a radius of 3,389 km, or about half that of Earth, and an orbital period of 687 days, or nearly 2 Earth years, and a rotational period of 24h 37m 0 seconds, almost the same length as our home planet. Mars is known to have had liquid water on its surface in the distant past and therefore NASA’s credo of “Follow the water” when looking at possible locations for life is a major factor in its interest to scientists.
As mentioned above, Mars is a smallish world, and because of its lack of mass, it has cooled significantly over the last 4 billion years and is basically geologically dead. This means it lacks a strong magnetosphere, which means it has almost no protection from the sun’s solar wind, which in turn means its atmosphere has gotten blown away into space and all its surface water has either sublimated away or been frozen solid at the poles or beneath the surface. All that suggests that the possibility for current life, as we know it, is pretty low. But, in the deep past, Mars had liquid surface water and so there may be fossilized evidence of ancient life. That is basically what we are looking for with all our probes and rovers.
Speaking of science at Mars, you may be surprised to know NASA currently has six active missions at the Red Planet. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is mapping the surface in great detail and arrived at Mars on March 10, 2006. The Opportunity Rover that landed on Mars on January 24, 2004, now in its 14th year, is still going strong and sending back science. The Mars Express orbiter is a joint collaboration from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency. It is exploring the atmosphere and surface of Mars from polar orbit.
The Curiosity Rover is an SUV-sized robot that just passed 2000 days on the Martian surface and continues to gather valuable science. Mars Odyssey is an orbiting experiment that is sending back information about the radiation environment, detecting water, and sending back additional geological data. And there is the more recent Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe, which is picking up where Mars Express and Mars Odyssey left off, arrived in the vicinity of Mars on September 21, 2014. And finally, launched just days ago, is InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a very cool lander that will actually be drilling deep into the surface of Mars to study its interior geology. Here is a great little overview video of the InSight mission and a short video of its launch on May 5, 2018. People often ask me, “How do we know such and such a scientific statement?” That’s how.
Now that I have hopefully whet your appetite, you may want to know how to spot Mars for yourself. Mars is going to be a mid- to late-summer object but is available now after about 1:30 a.m. all the way until dawn. So if you are an early riser you can catch Mars right now.
Mars should be easy to spot at its highest point due south just before about 5 a.m. Just look between Capricorn and Sagittarius. With the naked eye, look for a rusty red-colored star (see the chart) – it will be the brightest “star” in the area. Through a pair of mid-sized binoculars, Mars will still look star-like – it is pretty small after all – but its color will be much more apparent. Since it moves quickly against the background stars, it can be very enjoyable to watch it wander through the heavens.
Through a 6” or larger telescope, the planet will resolve into a true world – and under pristine conditions you can sometimes make out the polar regions and even the darker areas on the surface, as seen in Mike’s image above.
Mars is a difficult target but it is well worth the effort – so get outside this summer and see if you can spot the Red Planet. Let me know if you have added this to your list of observed targets … and remember to always keep looking up!
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!)