MARS: Part 1
See Also: Part 2
On August 27, 2003, Mars will be less than 34.65 million miles away from the Earth. In comparison to the space between your house and your neighbor's, that may seem like a huge distance, but keep in mind that Mars was about five times that distance from Earth only six months ago.
This month, Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history. Astronomers can only be certain that Mars has not come this close to Earth in several thousand years, and some scientists say it has not happened - and perhaps will not happen again - in 60,000 years.
You can watch Mars grow progressively brighter throughout the month of August. On any clear night this month, Mars can be seen rising in the southeast a couple hours after sunset. Mars will be easy to spot in the constellation Aquarius. You won't be able to go outside and see a big red ball in the sky, however. It will look just like a bright star, albeit a distinctly copper-colored "star," greatly outshining any other star currently in the evening sky. On August 27th, Mars will be the brightest object in the night sky besides the moon.
Mars will rise earlier and earlier over the course of the month. Arizona amateur astronomer Tony LaConte's "Backyard Stargazer E-News" tells us that Mars rises at 9:16 pm at the beginning of August and at 7:03 pm by the end of the month. However, Mars won't be very high in the sky until about midnight. To get the best view of Mars, wait until it is at least 30 degrees above the horizon. Mars is well placed for viewing by 11:45 pm at the beginning of August and by 10:00 pm at the end of the month.
Mars and the Earth will have their closest approach on Wednesday, August 27. On the night of August 27, Mars rises at 7:23 pm. By 9:00 pm it will be 18 degrees above the horizon, and it will be well placed for viewing at 30 degrees above the horizon by 10:20 pm. As Tony LaConte says, that's a pretty convenient time for viewing something that no human has seen in recorded history! In the weeks and months thereafter, Mars will continue to be visible in the evening sky after sunset.
The next best occurrence will be on August 15, 2050, and some say an even slightly closer approach may take place on August 19, 2287. Nevertheless, an encounter this close will never again present itself in the lifetimes of even our youngest children. Mars truly is a special sight this month, one you should get out and see. Share this with your friends and family. No one alive today will ever see this again!
Telescope Viewings of Mars
None of the greatest astronomers in history were able to see Mars as we can see it this month. Scientists and amateur astronomers alike will benefit from the spectacular view of Mars this August as it appears bigger and brighter in a telescope than ever before. Although Mars will be closest on August 27, astronomers suggest viewing the planet earlier, as dust storm season is beginning on the red planet and can obstruct a more detailed view.
The "disc" of the planet Mars will only be visible under the magnification of a telescope. Nevertheless, Jay Ryan, a former Contributing Editor to Sky & Telescope magazine and creator of "The Classical Astronomy Update," states in his e-mail newsletter: "Whatever you do, please don't run out and buy a telescope just to see Mars. Even at it's best, Mars always looks tiny in a small family telescope."
Mars will look like a small pumpkin-colored disc through a low-power telescope. At a modest 75-power magnification, Mars appears as large as the full moon to the naked eye. If you have a higher-magnification fancy scope and a pristine sky, you might see greater details such as the white polar ice cap, and maybe some of the dark surface markings. But these features will be indistinct at best.
According to Ryan, peering through a large scientific telescope is the best way to take advantage of this unique opportunity. So your best bet is to visit an observatory, planetarium, or astronomy club in your area.
Nevertheless, whether you are viewing through a telescope, glancing through a pair of binoculars, or stargazing outside the city, be sure to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Astronomy.com article on getting the best view of Mars: www.astronomy.com/Content/Dynamic/Articles/000/000/000/506odkwn.asp
August Sky and Telescope magazine article about observing Mars: http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/planets/article_970_1.asp
Mars is the most studied planet besides Earth. More than 10 probes have visited Mars, and more are planned for the future. However, several of the probes that were sent to land on Mars were lost. One failed because the engineers made a math error. Another supposedly landed in an unmapped crater, and the fate of a third remains a mystery.
The first successful space probes to go to Mars were the Mariner space probes in the 1960’s. Then in the 1970’s, two Viking probes landed on Mars and sent back detailed photographs of the planet. Each also had a robot arm to scoop up Martian soil and a minilaboratory for experiments.
Almost twenty years later, the launch of the Mars Global Surveyor, containing the Mars Orbiter camera (which was built using spare hardware from the failed Mars Observer), took place on November 7, 1996. The extended mission of the Mars Global Surveyor in orbit around Mars was to planned to permit study of year-to-year changes on the red planet.
In December 1996, the Mars Pathfinder Mission was launched. In July 1997, the spacecraft landed on Mars, cushioned in airbags. It carried a remote-controlled rover called the Sojourner. Operated by NASA scientists on Earth, the vehicle drove around taking photos of the planet’s surface, checking the weather, and studying the planet’s soil and rocks. These photos were beamed back to Earth.
The Mars Odyssey was launched on April 7, 2001. It carried science experiments designed to make observations of Mars to improve our understanding of the planet's climate and geology, including the search for water and evidence of life-sustaining environments. Odyssey used a technique called "aerobraking" that gradually brought the spacecraft closer to Mars with each orbit, by using the atmosphere of Mars to slow down the spacecraft without firing its engine or thrusters. The Odyssey mission will continue through August 2004.
The Mars Scout program plans to mount at least one mission (and perhaps several) to Mars beginning in 2007. In addition to all of the above NASA projects, the European Space Agency launched its own Mars Express mission in June 2003.
Did You Know...? Arizona State University is home to one of the best Mars research programs in the world. ASU is involved in at least a half-dozen current and pending missions to Mars, including NASA's Odyssey, Global Surveyor and Pathfinder missions and the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. NASA alone provides millions of dollars in funding to the university each year, and has done so for decades.
Discovering Mars: the Amazing Story of the Red Planet, by Melvin Berger, 1992.
The Mystery of Mars, by Sally Ride and Tam E. O’Shaughnessy, 1999.
http://humbabe.arc.nasa.gov/mgcm/fun/mars_chro.html (Planet Mars Chronology, from ancient times to the present day.)
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mgs/ (Current Mars images and news from the Mars Global Surveyor.)
www.seds.org/billa/tnp/mars.html (Mars page from the University of Arizona SEDS - Students for the Exploration of Space)
http://members.tripod.com/debnken/mars.html (Mars facts, photos, and statistics)
www.marsnews.com (Mars News)
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/ (NASA’s Mars Exploration Program for kids, students, and educators.)
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/kids/ (Mars exploration for kids.)
http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/mars/ (Mars Team Online: a resource for teachers and students.)
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/duststorms/ (Photos of dust storms and dust devils on Mars.)
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/odyssey/funzone.html (Mars Odyssey Fun Zone for Kids)
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