A Close Encounter with Mars
Then, just a few hours later, something extraordinary will happen to that solstice Sun. With hundreds of astronomers watching intently, the New Moon will slide across our star's fiery disk for a rare total solar eclipse. The Sun's ghostly corona will dance across the sky for nearly four minutes -- but, alas, only over southern Africa where the narrow path of totality makes landfall.
Above: The brilliant planet Mars (overexposed) near the Trifid nebula on May 20, 2001. Image credit & copyright: Michael Cole. [more]
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Earth and Mars have been growing steadily closer for months, and today around 0615 UT the two worlds will lie only 0.45 AU (67 million km) apart -- the nearest they've been in a dozen years. Mars is simply dazzling when it's so close to Earth, and finding it is easy, says astronomy professor George Lebo, a NASA Summer Faculty Fellow at the Marshall Space Flight Center. "Simply go outside between 10 pm and 2 am local time," he says, "and look toward the south. Mars is brighter than any other star in the sky and it has a distinctive reddish-orange color -- you can't miss it."
Mars rises in the east around sunset and can be seen for most of the night. But as Lebo suggests, the hours around midnight offer the best view, because that's when the Red Planet is highest in the sky. Midnight sky watchers at mid-northern latitudes will spot Mars hovering about 30 degrees above the southern horizon. For southern hemisphere stargazers, Mars will lie almost directly overhead.
Above: The southern sky shortly around midnight on June 21, 2001. Copper-hued Mars shines at visual magnitude -2.3 between the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. Don't confuse Mars with Antares (Ares is another name for Mars, Antares means "anti-Mars"), the red first magnitude star in Scorpius.
Even city dwellers with troublesome light pollution can spot the planet. Blazing at visual magnitude -2.3, Mars will outshine everything in the sky except Venus and the Sun itself. The Moon will be New on June 21st (and busy blocking out the Sun in southern Africa), so Mars will be even brighter than Earth's satellite.
Right: Earth and Mars are on the same side of the Sun this month. They were aligned most directly on June 13th --a date astronomers call opposition -- but the pair won't make their closest approach until 8 days later, on June 21st, because of the substantial eccentricity of Mars' orbit. [learn more]
Mars will remain blazing bright for weeks to come, fading slowly as northern summer wanes and fall approaches. Throughout the coming months the Red Planet will linger in a region of the sky that's home to the very center of our galaxy. This will be a treat for dark sky observers who can see the faint Milky Way, a hazy band of stars that bisects the sky along the galactic plane. The Milky Way cuts through the teapot-shaped constellation Sagittarius and brightens near its spout -- right by Mars. There lies the galactic center, the lair of a supermassive black hole around which our entire pinwheel galaxy spins. (Don't bother looking for the black hole, you can't see that!)
Of course, Mars and the galactic center are very far apart despite their seeming proximity. A spacecraft from Earth traveling at light speed would arrive at the Red Planet in only a few minutes. Reaching the inner regions of our galaxy would take an extra 30,000 years!
Above: This annotated map of the constellation Sagittarius shows the galactic center and the approximate location of Mars this month. The galactic center lies behind a think veil of absorbing dust in the galactic plane. Nearby "Baade's Window" is a relatively dust-poor region that allows some of the light from the innermost galaxy to shine through. Click to enlarge.
We don't yet have spacecraft that can travel so fast, but you can still visit Mars at the speed of light -- through a telescope. The nearby Red Planet will be a whopping 21 arcseconds across this week and next. "One arcsecond is a tiny angle, about the size of a dime viewed from a distance of 1.5 miles," explains Lebo. "Even twenty-one arcseconds is small to the unaided eye, but it's plenty big for telescopes." This week a modest six-inch reflecting telescope could reveal normally invisible details including martian clouds and icy polar caps. See Sky and Telescope's "A Grand Return of Mars" for more information.
If you don't own a telescope, looking at Mars with your unaided eye is still a wonderful way to enjoy this planetary close encounter. So don't wait. Mars is out there now, fiery red and beckoning from your own back yard!
presented by ThursdaysClassroom.com
- Discussion Questions: Ignite a discussion about the Red Planet! [lesson plan] [activity sheet]
- Martian Math: Counting to ten with just three fingers can be a real drag, but these Martian Math problems are fun! Students use logic and simple math to answer some unusual questions. [lesson plan] [ activity sheet for older kids or for younger kids]
- Companions for a Mars Journey: It's a long way to Mars and the spaceship will be crowded. Students plan their expedition to the Red Planet by selecting a crew from candidates such as Stephanie Survival and Ursula Unpredictable. [lesson plan] [activity sheet]
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Mars at Opposition on June 13, 2001 -- images and explanations from the external site ExploringMars.com.
Why 2003? -- This site from the European Space Agency explains why we launch spacecraft to Mars during opposition, and why some oppositions are better than others.
Oppositions of Mars, 1901-2035 -- from The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery (University of Arizona press)
Perihelic Oppositions of Mars -- a table of our closest encounters with the Red Planet.
Mars -- the book by Percival Lowell, 1895
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