Mars puts on a show this fall


PHOTO COURTESY WWW.SKYSAFARIASTRONOMY.COM

Location of Mars in the low eastern sky on August 27. (Image generated on SkySafari 6 Pro for the iPad with kind permission from Simulation Curriculum — see www.skysafariastronomy.com.)

For amateur astronomers, August is synonymous with shooting stars. August’s Perseid meteor shower is indeed one of the best astronomical events of the year, but sky watchers have actually been spoiled this year with a lunar eclipse and the unexpected visit from comet Neowise. And the night sky still has surprised in stock for us this year.

If you’re wondering about the bright new star in our evening sky, chances are you’re actually looking at a planet. Mars is particularly bright at the moment and even without a telescope it will be interesting to keep a close eye on it until it puts on its best show in 15 years for several weeks between September and November. Mars will display a gradual brightening until it actually becomes brighter than Jupiter in later September, becoming the second-brightest planet (after Venus).

If you’re having difficulty spotting Mars, it can be easily distinguished from surrounding stars by its hue (some see it as reddish or orange, others as salmon-colored). It’s actually the only bright star in the constellation Pisces. Just look to the eastern horizon (where the sun rises) in the late evening sky.

Mars won’t reveal itself much in binoculars, and even in a small amateur telescope, the view can be a bit disappointing at first. We have been spoiled by decades of high-resolution pictures from the Hubble telescope and advanced space probes. So, the view of the famous Red Planet in a small telescope might leave some people unmoved. An expert will tell you that in order to have a decent view of Mars, and amateur telescope with at least a 75 mm diameter front lens is required.

However, at the moment, Mars’s diameter exceeds 15 arc seconds. An arc second is an angular measurement equal to 1/3600 of a degree. It may still seem an insignificantly small size, but for observational astronomy, it’s huge! By the start of September, Mars will appear even larger and it will reach 22 arc seconds across by September 25. So, whether with the naked eye or a small telescope, there is no better time to observe the Red Planet.

The lighter and darker areas of Mars will be relatively easy to distinguish in even small telescopes, and you might possibly catch a glimpse of the southern polar cap. Our map shows Mars soon after it clears the eastern horizon, but it is best to wait until it’s a bit higher in the sky before attempting to view it through a telescope (when the view is not disrupted as much by ground effects and the atmospheric disturbances). Start with a small magnification at first.

Observing conditions will continue to improve over the next few weeks as the planet peaks earlier and earlier. Mars is putting on quite a show at the moment, and even with the naked eye, it will be fun to watch it brighten up as we head into fall.

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