You may have noticed that fiery-orange-hued, beacon-like star rising in the eastern evening sky—the planet Mars. No better time exists than now to get close and personal with the red planet.
On Tuesday, April 8, the dusty, ruddy world reaches what is known as opposition, when the planet and the sun are on opposite sides of Earth. This means that sky-watchers may follow Mars over the course of the entire night, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.
While this occurs every 26 months, this year’s event creates the perfect cosmic alignment to have Mars shine its biggest and brightest in the evening sky in nearly seven years.
Because the orbit of Mars is not perfectly circular, the planet actually makes its closest approach to Earth one week later on April 14, at about 59.7 million miles (96 million kilometers) from us. Its relative proximity will make it shine at magnitude -1.5. That is around the same brightness as the most brilliant star visible this season, Sirius (now located in the low southwestern, early evening sky).
A Rusty World
The fourth rock from the sun, Mars, is about half the size of our planet and has a third of our gravity. It is more than one and half times farther from the sun than Earth is.
Like a rusty nail, the planet’s reddish-orange color is caused by oxidized iron (also known as rust) on its surface. Mars is also covered by fine dust, which is often whipped up into dust storms by 186-mile-per-hour (300-kilometer-per-hour) winds. With mountains three times higher than Everest and canyons five times longer than the Grand Canyon, Mars is an adventure traveler’s paradise.
Blessed with an atmosphere, polar caps that change with seasons, and 24-hour (and 37-minute) long days, Mars is the most Earth-like of all the planets in the solar system. NASA rover missions in recent years have even established that Mars likely had ancient channels—cut not by Martians but by ancient floods.
See for Yourself
Look for Mars to rise soon after local sunset over the eastern horizon within the constellation Virgo, the Maiden. It reaches its highest point in the southern sky around 1 a.m. local time.
While this Martian apparition won’t be as impressive as the one in 2003, when the planet made its closest approach to Earth in 56,000 years, this year’s opposition will bring it close enough so that surface features will be visible through backyard telescopes.
Because the orange-hued planet will never rise very high this season in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, there is a constant battle with the blurring effect of Earth’s thick atmosphere.
The first feature that will catch your eye will be the frosty north polar cap. Consisting of water ice and frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice), the caps glow bright white and appear conspicuous because the planet’s northern hemisphere is now tilted some 23 degrees toward Earth.
And because it’s now summertime in the northern hemisphere of Mars, careful observers (using high magnification with smaller telescopes) can actually follow the highly reflective polar cap as it undergoes a thaw and shrinks over the next few months.
There is no doubt that a nightly vigil will quickly pay off, as your eyes begin to pick out subtle details of the soft Martian surface features. A small backyard scope (with at least a four-inch mirror) will begin to reveal a pattern of light and dark shadings similar to those seen on our moon. With handy up-to-date maps now available online, identifying a variety of markings becomes possible.
Don’t expect to see little green men or canals, though. Mars watching requires patience and persistence, but it is well worth the effort. Since Mars rotates on its axis in just a little over 24 hours, it always shows off a different face. Check out Sky and Telescope‘s amazing Mars Profiler web-based app that can show you what side of the planet is facing you at any time, with major features marked. Mars should offer great views not only this week but also throughout April, providing plenty of opportunities to tour the planet’s ruddy surface.
Now is the time to take that telescope that’s been collecting dust out of your closet and take a tour of the red planet: It is the biggest and brightest it will get until 2016.
Note: For those of you who don’t have a telescope handy or are clouded out, tune in to a live webcast called Night of the Red Planet, hosted by Astronomers Without Borders and the Virtual Telescope Project on April 8 at 23:00 UT (7 p.m. EST), for a tour of Mars through a large telescope and with an astronomer guide. Imagine touring another world right from your laptop or mobile device—how cool is that?