Return of the Red Planet
Once every 26 months Mars shines at its brightest in the evening sky. This occurs when Mars is at opposition, that is, when Mars and the Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth. This year Mars will reach opposition on June 13th at which time its brightness will peak at magnitude -2.4. Perhaps you have noticed the red planet growing steadily brighter in recent weeks.
Because the orbits of Mars and Earth are not perfectly circular, Mars will be closest to Earth a few days later on June 21st. On this date Mars will be 67.3 million kilometers away from Earth -- the nearest and largest it has been since 1988. Its disk will be 21 arcseconds wide compared to less than 10 arcseconds just three months earlier. Now is therefore a great opportunity for astronomers to observe surface features on the red planet. A high quality telescope, even of small aperture, will readily show dark surface markings and the white polar caps. A large telescope (8-inch or more) may even reveal clouds and dust storms.
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Mars will remain well placed for observation between June and August. Make a special effort to observe this rare spectacle with a good telescope and you will be rewarded with a fine view. If necessary, contact your local Astronomy club and enquire about viewing night sessions for the public.
During the current apparition Mars will appear close in the sky to the red supergiant star known as Antares. Interestingly, the name Antares is of ancient origin and is generally thought to mean "rival of" or "similar to" Mars in reference to its reddish color.
Because Mars at opposition is close to Earth, this is also the best time to send spacecraft to the red planet. So it was in April this year that NASA launched the 2001 Mars Odyssey probe. This probe will arrive at Mars in October 2001 to carry out a two and a half year mission in search of underground water and minerals. At the next opposition, in August 2003, Mars and Earth will be just 55.8 million kilometers apart -- the closest approach since 1924. Indeed both NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send robotic explorers in 2003. Because favorable oppositions of Mars occur only every 15 to 17 years, the next series of very close encounters in 2018 will offer the first good opportunity for human exploration of the red planet.
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