Have you seen it? I’m talking about that super-bright and super-red “star” rising in the east in the early evening. That’s not actually a star, it’s the planet Mars. While it’s still far away, Mars is now the closest it’s been to Earth in over two years, and is the closest it will be until 2035.
Mars and the Earth and less than 39 million miles away from each other right now. Every two years and two months Earth and Mars catch up with each other in their respective orbits around the sun. Astronomers call this opposition, which is when both planets are at their minimum distance from each other. Not all opposition distances are the same, though, because the orbits of Mars and Earth are not perfectly circular. The geometry is, indeed, working out well this time around!
The opposition of Mars also means that Mars and the sun are on opposite sides of the sky. Just like a full moon, Mars rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, so it’s available all night long. This schedule will hold for more or less the rest of the month. It’s by far the brightest star-like object in the evening sky, and you’ll also quickly see why it’s called the red planet with its reddish-orange glow.
Mars will be making a fairly high arc across the southern half of the sky through the night, so it will be a prime target for even small telescopes. It really helps to let Mars get as high in the sky as you can before you train your scope on it so it can rise above the thicker layer of Earth’s blurring atmosphere. That means staying up as late as you can to observe Mars. It’s also important to take long continuous looks through your telescope so your eye can adjust to the light level inside the scope. You may also catch more transparent layers of the atmosphere as they blow through.
Mars is the only planet in our solar system where you can actually see the surface with a telescope. With other planets like Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, all you see are cloud tops. I certainly don’t want to oversell what you’ll see on Mars, though. It’s still only a 4,000-mile-wide planet over 39 million miles away this week. Even with higher magnification, it’s not going to fill up the field of your telescope eyepiece.
One of the easiest surface features that’s possible to see on Mars is the northern polar cap. With most telescopes, you see an inverted, upside-down image. If that’s how it appears in your scope, look on the lower side of the disk of Mars for a white smudge. It can still be tricky to see, however. As it rises, the polar cap will appear on the lower right edge of Mars and will gradually shift to the bottom of the disk as Mars reaches its highest point in the sky overnight. You may also see dark patches that are mainly the extensive valleys on Mars. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that there won’t be a global dust storm on Mars during this time. Unfortunately, they usually do occur during oppositions of Mars and Earth, especially close ones like this October.
Sky and Telescope Magazine has a great tool available on their website. It’s called the Mars Profiler, and with it you’ll know what surface features on Mars are visible at any time on Earth. Mars rotates on its axis so the vista is gradually and continually changing. Just search for it under tools on skyandtelescope.com. You’ll love it!
Here’s another tip about using your telescope on Mars or anything else in the night sky. Make sure you let your telescope and any eyepieces you’ll be using sit outside for a good 30-60 minutes so all of the glass and mirrors can adapt to the outside temperature. It really makes a difference!
Enjoy the great 2020 Martian invasion. Remember, there won’t be one this good again until 2035!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at email@example.com.
UPCOMING MIKE LYNCH MINNESOTA/WISCONSIN STARWATCH PROGRAMS THIS COMING WEEK:
- Monday, Oct. 12, 7-8:30 p.m. at Casey Lake Park in North St. Paul. For more information and reservations call 651-747-2400 or ci.north-saint-paul.mn.us/
- Tuesday, Oct. 13, 7-8:30 p.m., Buffalo High School in Buffalo. Through BHM Community Ed, for more information and reservations call 763-682-8700 or bhmschools.org/community-eD
- Wednesday, Oct. 14, 6:45-8:15 p.m., at Dakota Parks Whitetail Woods Regional Park, Farmington. For more information and reservations call 651-437-3191 or co.dakota.mn.us/parks/
- Thursday, Oct. 15, 7-8:30 p.m. at Fleming Field in South St. Paul. Through the Community Affairs Office. For additional information, contact Deb Griffith, Community Affairs Liaison at 651-554-3230 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This program is sponsored by the South St. Paul Mayor’s Youth Task Force.
- Saturday, Oct. 17, 7-8:30 p.m., Prairie Woods Environmental Center in New London-Spicer. Through Willmar, New London-Spicer Community Education, 320-231-8490 or cewillmarmn.com.
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