There will never be a better time to ask Santa for a telescope than this Christmas! Over the last few weeks the planet Mars has doubled in brightness… and for every minute that passes… Earth and Mars get about 590 kilometers closer! Closer, that is, until December 18 when our separation will be about 88.5 million kilometers apart.
Like a cosmic present, the Red Planet will reach opposition on December 24 when it will be exactly opposite the Earth from the Sun and visible from dusk til’ dawn. At around twice the size of Luna and over 230 times further away, Mars will never appear as large as the Full Moon, but it will outshine the rest of the stars in the sky for a short time. What a wonderful holiday treat for even a small backyard telescope!
Don’t be disappointed if the view doesn’t look like a Hubble image. The average telescope will reveal Mars’ soft orange globe, dark mottling and a wink of a polar cap with steady seeing. You might even spot the blue-tinged haze of a carbon-dioxide atmosphere. If you view Mars on several different occasions at various times, you’ll soon learn to spot surface markings. Remember to be patient!
The best views come during a moment of steady seeing and too much magnification can harm the view. Some good advice is to wait until Mars is reaching culmination (its highest point) and make sure your telescope has reached outdoor temperature. Begin with the lowest magnification possible and work your way up to what the sky will allow. Don’t just take a peek and walk away! Stay and watch for awhile…
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Sketching is a good way to train your eye to see more details and provides you with your own observing record to compare with photographs of features. Try using great on-line interactive tools like this one from Sky & Telescope, Mars: Which Side Is Visible?
SkyWatchers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the Mars’ approach! In August 2007 NASA launched the Phoenix Lander and its due to reach Mars in May 2008 where it will join Spirit and Opportunity. When you look at Mars, think of what the future might bring! Less than four decades ago, mankind made the monumental achievement of standing on the lunar surface in around three days.
Now missions like the Mars Pathfinder arrive at an even more distant world in seven months. According to NASA, mankind will soon be heading to the Moon “for extended periods of time, astronauts will search for resources and learn how to work safely in a harsh environment — stepping stones to future exploration.” To Mars; “Robotic missions have found evidence of a watery past, suggesting that simple life forms may have developed long ago and may persist beneath the surface today. Human exploration could provide answers to some profound questions.” and Beyond; “As humans and robots work together exploring the moon and Mars, NASA spacecraft will continue to send back scientific data from throughout the solar system, laying the groundwork for potential human journeys.”
Perhaps one day future astronauts will be wishing us a “Very Martian Christmas”!