Mars is Back!

File:Mars Earth Comparison.png

Mars is back, and I have a hard time believing how much time has passed. It was in February of 2012 that I last wrote about “The Return of Big Red”. Since that time, much has changed on Earth and a hovering sky crane lowered “Curiosity” onto Mars’ surface, continuing NASA’s legacy of remarkable planetary research and exploration. I was almost caught off guard by this years Mars opposition with Earth. If not for a student telling me about his recent observations during our monthly “Air and Space Club” meeting at school, I would have probably missed the best views Mars over the next two years.

Thankfully, this was not the case and last night I went out, with my wife in tow, to view “Big Red” for the first time since June 19th, 2012. After adjusting the telescope to avoid trees obstructing our view, the 6mm Zhumell Planetary Eyepiece was put in and at 200x magnification Mars did not disappoint. Even though it is still about three weeks away from it’s closest pass to Earth, land features such as Syrtis Major and the Polar Ice Cap were visible. Attempting to use the Orange #21 color filter did not yield any further detail. As is normally the case, simply waiting for those moments of sharp views when the atmosphere settles down, brought the best moments of the night.

File:Marsorbitsolarsystem.gifAs Mars and Earth continue their Solar System Dance, catching up with each other every two years, be sure to head out and take a look by the middle of April before we again start to slowly move away from each other. If you happen to miss this one, fear not, because come 2016 and 2018, Mars will be even more impressive in size and detail through a telescope because of how odd it’s orbit coincides with our own.

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The Return of Big Red

“Guess who’s back, back again. Big Red’s back, tell a friend!”
Eminem-February, 2012

(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