Looking Up column: Mars, the fiery gem of the night

Peter Becker
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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]

In tonight’s night sky, if clouds cooperate, we can enjoy thousands of stars and the faithful moon. But what is capturing our attention is likely the lovely bright planets, especially Mars, booming brilliant and golden.

In late September, just look to the east soon after darkness sets in. Mars will be low but rising, dominating the sky all night.

In the early evening, also look to the south-southwest for Jupiter, very bright and white, and Saturn, bright but not quite as much, to the left.

About an hour before sunrise, take a look in the east. Mars has moved far over to the west, and has been replaced by planet Venus, shining brilliantly.

In late September, Mars rises less than an hour after sunset. It appears like a blazing ember, magnitude -2.5, slightly brighter than Jupiter and more brilliant than any star in the night sky. Only Venus and the moon are brighter.

This column highlights the wonder of the night sky available for anyone with eyes to see. Most people don’t own a telescope, and one is not needed to appreciate looking up.

Of course, the more you take time with the heavens above, the more you may wish a “closer look” and go further with your interest in astronomy.

Mars is a wonder to see as it makes a relatively close passage to the Earth, making it dramatically brighter.

Even users of fairly small telescopes, however, look forward to the sight of Mars at times like these. Jupiter and Saturn are always incredible to see in any size telescope magnifying, say, at least 40x (more is better under the right conditions).

A close view of Mars is rare. “Close,” however, is also relative. Don’t expect an eyepiece view of any of these planets to be as spectacular as a high-quality photograph taken with a large instrument.

The planets present only small discs at low to medium magnifications. What you see also depends on many factors, including the steadiness of the atmosphere, altitude above the horizon, letting the air in the tube of a reflecting telescope cool to the temperature of the night air, quality of your instrument, whether your reflector’s mirrors are in alignment, not using too high a magnification for your size telescope, and two qualities that depend on you - your experience and level of patience.

An unsteady atmosphere causes stars to twinkle and blurs views of the planets and moon in the eyepiece. Keep looking, however, and eventually the air may settle down momentarily to give you a razor-sharp view.

Sometimes the night air is so steady, that the “seeing” (as it is called) is wonderful, and you resolve fine details.

I have been looking at Mars this past week and have been thrilled to once again see the bright, white south polar cap, and the faint but dark markings on the red-orange surface.

The dark areas are permanent features and are regions of varying contrast.

Dust storms occasionally whip across, and these can alter the outlines of features.

It is also possible to see thin clouds.

In 2004, when Mars was close, I had great fun viewing it every night I could, making sketches of what I saw. I was able to bring these sketches together to create a crude map showing the major features.

I first observed Mars when it was close many years ago, with only a 3-inch-wide reflecting telescope. I saw dark markings and the polar cap. The markings were indefinite but visible.

This time around, Mars is closest to Earth on Oct. 6. It reaches opposition - when it is directly opposite the sun, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise - on Oct. 13.

At that time, Mars will be 39.0 million miles away. As I said, “near” is relative!

Mars orbits the sun in about two years (687 Earth days). It varies in distance at closest approach due to its slightly elliptical orbit.

A Martian day is 24 hours, 37 minutes, a little longer than an Earth day (23 hours 56 minutes). If you look in a telescope every night at the same hour, you’d see exactly the same face of Mars if the rotation was exactly the same. Rather, the planet shifts slightly each night, so it takes 41 nights at the same hour to watch the whole planet spin once around.

Mars is a small world, 4,220 miles wide; Earth is 7,918 miles. Yet it is about the same as all the landmasses on Earth put together.

Carrying a mystique for thousands of years, we on Earth look and ponder, and in the last 54 years have actually landed spacecraft to explore. We are at last within grasp of perhaps being able to visit Mars in person.

Whether it is an abode of life of some sort or used to be, remains unanswered. Either way, Mars is a fiery gem of the night, capturing our awe.

Harvest moon, the first full moon after the start of autumn, is on Oct. 1. There’s a second full moon in October, on Oct. 31, referred to as a blue 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.