“Guess who’s back, back again. Big Red’s back, tell a friend!”
(Referencing the orbital cycle that bring Mars and Earth near each other for incredible views every two years)
Good ole Slim Shady has it right once again. If you are into planetary observing, now is the time to pull out the long johns, put in the hand warmers and take out the scope as Mars returns for some spectacular views over the next couple weeks.
Every two years the orbital gods bring Earth between the Sun and Mars making the two planets closer together. This is known as an opposition. It is at this point every two years that amateur astronomers get their best views of our red headed neighbor. The last opposition of Mars and Earth occurred in early 2010 as I noted during one of my first blog posts on March 19, 2010.
Now, nearly two years later, with a clear night presenting itself just prior to one of our only snow storms of the season thus far, I went out and took a long awaited view of Mars. Using a 6mm eyepiece showing 200X magnification, the polar ice cap popped out as a bright white feature on the northern most tip of the planet. As the atmosphere would occasionally settle down, sharp views occasionally stabilized revealing some fine detailed land features in the extreme Southern hemisphere. This is where patience pays off in astronomy, particularly for planetary observing. One or two seconds of sharpness can provide some of the best memories from an evening out.
I’m hoping for a couple more nights of observing before Mars and Earth quickly begin to move away from each other starting in mid March. As Mars rotates, it shows a different side of itself to Earth every night; land features such as Sytris Major and Terra Meridian will show up as dark defined regions at 200X magnification. If you are interested in planetary observing now is the time to see Mars, it won’t be at this close distance to Earth for another two years and with the Mayan 2012 calendar coming to an end this upcoming December there is definitely no time like the present to observe our closest planetary neighbor.
This image from the iPhone’s SkySafari app shows a zoomed in view of Mars at the time of observing.
Star Log: February 18th, 2012