Looking Up column: Fiery Mars arrives on the scene

Peter Becker
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Earth and Mars are shown next to each other to compare their size. Thankfully Mars never comes this close!

If you have a good, low view to the east, catch what looks like a distant campfire soon after the sky grows dark and the stars come out to shine.

This is Mars.

The beloved Red Planet, long cloaked in awe and mystery, only in the past few decades has started to reveal some secrets, even as more questions arise. Its lure somehow draws us as in millennia past, now in this space-age close to our literal grasp.

Pondered as a possible abode of life, the notion has never been ruled out. Whether that is the case or not (little green martian microbes with antennae living underground with tiny ray guns?), the fourth planet from the sun and the one most similar to our own, is nearing one of its fairly rare close approaches this October.

Mars orbits the sun in 687 Earth days, which is nearly two Earth years, and each time reaches a closest point. This point is referred to as perihelion (the farthest point is aphelion). The distance varies considerably due to Mars’ highly elliptical orbit. On occasion, it gets close enough to stand out like a fiery beacon, catching even the attention of people who don’t ordinarily look up to admire a clear, night sky.

Currently, Mars rises in the east less than a half-hour after twilight fades into night. It is glowing at magnitude -1.6, matching the brightest star of the night sky, blue-white Sirius, which is well seen on winter evenings.

The Red Planet makes its closest approach on Oct. 6, appropriately when autumn in the Northern Hemisphere is known for foliage bursting in red, orange and yellow.

Presently, the planet is about 48.3 million miles from Earth. On Oct. 6 it will be 38.6 million miles.

It hasn’t been so close since Aug. 27, 2003 (34.65 million miles). It will be another 15 years (2035) until Mars is any closer than this year’s passage.

Most of the time, Mars glows at around +2 magnitude or so, and catches little attention other than by amateur astronomers. At these times, Mars is much farther and shows little more than a tiny red disc in a small telescope.

During these rare close passages, even a telescope with a 3-inch mirror or lens can start to show dusky markings and the bright polar cap. It can be very challenging even at these opportunities to see much. The atmosphere needs to be steady as possible, and Mars should be viewed when it is well above the horizon. Examining Mars takes a well-aligned telescope and patience, and as experience builds, you may be able to identify major, dark features shown on maps of Mars.

Even without a telescope, however, enjoy seeing this fiery beacon glowing in the sky. Ponder its mysteries!

Be sure to enjoy Jupiter and Saturn, in the southern sky the next clear evening. Jupiter is most brilliant, on the right side (west) as seen from the Northern Hemisphere.

Saturday night, Aug. 29, the gibbous moon will be to the lower left (east) of Saturn.

About an hour before sunrise, look due east again. Mars will have moved far to the southwest, but in its place is planet Venus, shining very bright.

While you are out that early this time of year, you will see the wonderful constellation Orion with its three-star “belt,” in the south-southeast. Sirius is to the lower left. You are seeing a preview of December evening skies!

The moon is full on Oct. 1 and is known as the Harvest Moon.

Keep looking up at the sky!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.

Mars, photographed Aug. 31, 2010 through a telescope. [Photo by Marc Lecleire (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4)], via Wikimedia Commons]