Thursday, February 03, 2005

Time to Look at Mars Again

Time to Look at Mars Again
by Dave Adalian

Planet Mars grabbed big headlines in summer of 2003, making its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years while millions turned out worldwide for the spectacular show.

Lately, the Red Planet has been sitting dim and far away on the other side of the Sun, but during the next 10 months that will change as Earth cozies up for another close pass. With nearly a year before Mars again becomes one of the brightest objects in the night sky, now is the time to start watching.

Think of Earth and Mars as cars on a race track. Mars sits farther out, moving slowly, while Earth roars along on an inside track. Even though Mars isn’t the speedster Earth is, it still takes us some 28 months to lap it, which is why we’re only starting to get good views of it again now as Earth rounds her home star.

Getting up early is required for finding Mars. The God of War is currently rising about 4 o’clock in the morning, but doesn’t clear the treetops until 30 minutes or so later. To sight it, look to the southeast near the horizon for its pink light.

Don’t confuse Mars with much brighter Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius that is also not far above the horizon in the southeast, but up and to the right of Mars. This red star is actually named for its resemblance to the Red Planet. Antares means rival of Aries, the Greek name for Mars.

Mars now sits just west of Sagittarius and will have moved to the east side of the Celestial Archer by month’s end. But, because it moves in the same direction around the Sun as Earth, there isn’t much change in the time it rises until the they’re far closer together. By April, Mars is up around 3 a.m., rising in Capricornus, and in May it’s up by 2 o’clock in Aquarius.

It spends the summer cruising through Pisces, picking up an hour each month and brightening along the way. Through September, Mars rises just after 9 p.m., almost due east, in Aries, where it will stay until it reaches its brightest and closest by mid-November. Then, it rises at sunset to shine overhead by midnight.

Mars won’t be as spectacular as summer 2003, but will certainly be well worth seeing, especially for those who weren’t watching the last go-round.


This column appeared originally in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on Feb. 3, 2005.