Mars at Opposition

Mars has always been a fascinating sight throughout history. In renaissance times, it was believed that Mars had oceans and canals. It has been the focus of many a science fiction novel, such as War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells. As of late, Mars has been the destination of many scientific probes and rovers, and has been under heavy scrutiny in the search for extraterrestrial life and water. It remains a potential destination for future explorers from our own planet. And this week, Mars makes a spectacular appearance in our night skies!

Mars has reached opposition, meaning that Mars is directly opposite the Sun, and Earth is directly in the center. This happens every 26 months or so. On this pass, Mars will approach as close as 46.7 million miles. It will appear as a bright fiery red star in the southern sky. This year, Mars appears alongside Saturn and the bright star Antares in the constellation of Scorpius, and should be bright and visible in the southern sky around 11 p.m.-midnight where you live.

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Image of Mars through a telescope at 400x to give an idea of how large may appear in a telescope. The glare of Mars prevents any surface detail from being seen in this image. Image taken by me.

While Mars appears as a brilliant red star to the naked eye, this is the perfect time to view Mars with a telescope. At this distance, with 200x magnification or more, plenty of surface details can be made out! Polar ice caps can be seen at either end of Mars. Large, dark features can be seen on the surface. Atmospheric haze can be seen blurring out some of the sutface features. And if you’re lucky, you may even be able to spot a dust storm or two!

I have found that for beginners, using a #25 red filter to view Mars will immensely help view some of the darker surface features, such as Syrtis Major. The filter will help cut through the bright glare, and even help filter out some of Earth’s atmospheric distortion as well. Once you have seen the pattern of surface features on Mars using the filter, try taking it off and spotting the features under natural lighting. That will allow you to see the haze of the Martian atmosphere and the visual effects it has on the darker regions of Mars.

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View of Mars. Syrtis Major is the large dark feature near the bottom, extending up through the center

There are many surface features that you may see. One of the most prominent is Syrtis Major. First spotted by Christiaan Huygens in 1659, it was the first surface feature on another planet viewed from Earth. Thought to be a sea, then a plain, Syrtis Major is really a shield volcano (which is a volcano built from lava flows and has a low profile, similar to viewing a shield from the side). Huygens used Syrtis Major in determining the length of the Martian day (24 hours, 37 minutes, just longer than an Earth day).

Another prominent feature you may see is Mare Acidalium, which is also another large dark spot. Named after a fountain in Greece where the goddess Venus bathed, Mare Acidalium contains volcanoes and a system of canyons. The famous “Face on Mars” image taken by the Viking 1 orbiter was taken in a region of Mare Acidalium called Cydonia. Mare Acidadlium may have been the basin for an ancient ocean at one time.

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Face on Mars image taken by Viking 1, image caused by low resolution matrixing

There are other smaller features visible, depending on how large your telescope is, and how much magnification you have available. For optimal viewing, wait until Mars is at its highest point in the sky (between midnight and 2 a.m. at your location). As Mars doesn’t rise more than 30° high at mid-northern latitudes, atmospheric distortion will come into play. It won’t totally hamper your view of Mars, but you may have to be patient and wait for those precious few seconds where the atmosphere clears and your view of Mars is clear.

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Image of Mars with the Hubble Space Telescope

As Mars is 46.7 million miles away, it will never appear as more than a bright star with the naked eye, dispelling rumors that Mars will appear as large as the full moon in the sky. It can appear that large, but only in a telescope with enough magnification. As this opposition of Mars is the best in 11 years, if you’re able, try to take advantage and view Mars through a telescope. Mars’ opposition in 2016 is May 22, but its closest approach is May 30, so there is plenty of time to spot the features of Mars if the weather doesn’t cooperate where you live. The next opposition of Mars will be in July of 2018. So the next clear night you get, head out and view Mars in its large and bright glory. From naked eye viewing to spotting with a telescope, Mars is a sight that won’t disappoint!

Don’t forget to share us with your stargazing friends on Facebook and Twitter!

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