Enter the Red Planet: Our Guide to Mars Opposition 2018

Mars Dust Storm
A dusty view of Mars from July 11th. Image credit and copyright: Waskogm.
Mars Dust Storm
A dusty view of Mars from July 11th as Mars opposition 2018 nears. Image credit and copyright: Waskogm.

Have you checked out Mars this season? Mars reaches opposition on July 27th at 5:00 Universal Time (UT) shining at magnitude -2.8 and appearing 24.3” across—nearly as large as it can appear, and the largest since the historic opposition of 2003. We won’t have an opposition this favorable again until September 15th, 2035.

Mars starts this week near the +4th magnitude star Psi Capricorni, loops westward through retrograde briefly into the astronomical constellation of Sagittarius the Archer in late August before heading back into Capricornus in September.

Mars opened up 2018 just 4.8” across, trekking through the early dawn sky. What a difference a few months make: Mars broke 15” arc seconds—a maximum size for an unfavorable opposition near aphelion—on May 30th, and now dominates the summer sky around midnight.

Path of Mars
The path of Mars from July through September 2018. Credit: Starry Night.

There’s one downside, however, to the 2018 opposition of Mars: it’s occurring very nearly as far south along the ecliptic as it can. This is great news for observers in Australia, South Africa and South America, as the Red Planet rides high near the zenith at local midnight. Up north, however, we are still looking at Mars through the murk of the atmosphere lower to the horizon. For example, here in Norfolk, Virginia at latitude 37 degrees north, we never see Mars rise more than 29 degrees altitude above the southern horizon this season.

Down with Dust Storms

Does Mars seem a bit… peachy colored to you this season? It’s not your imagination: a planetary dust storm is indeed underway. It’s the middle of autumn for northern hemisphere of Mars, and this seems to be shaping up to be one of those oppositions where the planet, though at its closest, presents a featureless, dust-shrouded disk. This seems to be the case roughly every third opposition or so… our best hope now is that it may clear in the coming final weeks of July. We checked out Mars over the past weekend, and could just spy the pole cap and some slight detail under a veil of haze.

Curiosity dust storm
The Curiosity rover’s dusty view from late June. Credit: NASA

Despite the depiction of Martian dust storms in science fiction blockbusters such as The Martian as furious and unrelenting, these storms are actually pretty mild-mannered, barely able to chase a leaf before them through the tenuous Martian atmosphere, if deciduous trees grew on Mars. One thing Martian dust storms can do, however, is coat solar panels with a battery-killing film, and it has yet to be seen if the aging Opportunity rover will awaken and phone home from Meridiani Planum.

Unlike the Earth, Mars has a markedly elliptical orbit, varying from 1.7 (AU) astronomical units from the Sun at aphelion to 1.4 AU near perihelion. This all means that not every opposition of Mars is equal; in fact, Mars can range from 55 million to 102 million kilometers from the Earth near opposition and appear 13.8” to 25.1” across, depending on where it’s at in its orbit. And although Mars laps the Earth roughly every 26 months, a cycle of favorable oppositions repeat every 15 years.

Mars 2018
Still dusty… Mars from July 16th. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad.

In 2018, Mars reaches opposition on July 27th at 5:00 UT/1:00 AM EDT 57.8 million kilometers from the Earth, then makes its closest approach four days later on July 31st at 8:00 UT/4:00 AM EDT, 57.6 million kilometers distant. Why the discrepancy? Well, opposition is simply reckoned as the point where an outer planet reaches an ecliptic longitude of 180 degrees opposite from the Sun. Mars, however, is still headed inward towards perihelion on September 16th, while Earth just came off of aphelion on July 6th.

Visually, Mars can on occasion “go yellow” and present a saffron color even to the naked eye if a planetary wide sandstorm is underway. At the eyepiece, the most prominent feature is always the pole cap, a white dollop on the planet’s pumpkin hued limb. Crank up the magnification, and dark patches come into view, as Mars is the only planet in the solar system presenting an actual surface available for amateur scrutiny. Mars has a day very similar to Earth’s at only 37 minutes longer in duration, meaning that if you observe Mars at the same time every evening, you’ll see nearly the same longitude of the planet turned towards you, shifted 10 degrees westward. A great tool for comparing what features on Mars are currently turned Earthward is Mars Previewer.

Can you spy Mars… daytime? This month is a good time to try, as it currently shines brighter than Jupiter. The easiest thing to do is lock on to it with a telescope near dawn as it sets to the west and the Sun rises in the east, then simply track it into the daytime sky. We’ve seen Mars in 2003 and again this year while the Sun is still above the horizon… having the Moon nearby also helps, though of course, Mars is very close to the horizon at sunset/sunrise right at opposition.

And speaking of which, viewers in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia are in for a special treat on the evening of July 27th, as a total eclipse of the Moon occurs just 15 hours after Mars passes opposition. Ironically, this is also a Minimoon eclipse, as the Moon also passes apogee just 14 hours prior to entering the Earth’s shadow. Expect to see the Red Planet just seven degrees from the blood red Moon at mid-eclipse (more on the eclipse next week).

eclipse vs mars
Mars versus the total lunar eclipse on the night of July 27th. Credit: Stellarium

The Moon won’t occult (pass in front of) Mars again until November 16th, 2018 for the very southernmost tip of South America. Stick around until July 26th, 2344 AD, and you can witness the Moon occulting the planet Saturn during an eclipse, though you’ll have to journey to southern Japan to do it.

But you may not have to wait that long… stick around until April 27th, 2078, and you can witness the Moon occult Mars… during a penumbral lunar eclipse:

2078 occultation
The April 27th, 2078 occultation of Mars… during a penumbral lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Occult 4.2/Starry Night

This current evening apparition of Mars ends over a year from now on September 2nd, 2019, as Mars reaches solar conjunction on the farside of the Sun.

Finally, opposition is a great time to try and check the tiny Martian moons Phobos and Deimos off of your life list. These two moons were actually discovered by Asaph Hall from the United States Naval Observatory’s newly installed 26-inch refractor during a favorable parihelic apparition of Mars in 1877.

phobos and deimos
An alien sky… Phobos occults Deimos as seen from the surface of Mars, courtesy of the Curiosity rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems/Texas A&M Univ

Shining at magnitude +12.4 (Deimos) and +11.3 (Phobos), seeing these moons would be a cinch… were it not for the presence of Mars shining a million times brighter nearby. Your best bet is to construct an occulting bar eyepiece (we’ve used a thin strip of foil and a guitar string affixed to an eyepiece to accomplish this) or simply place brilliant Mars just out of view. Phobos orbits once every 7.7 hours and substends 20” from the disk of Mars, while Deimos goes around Mars once every 30.35 hours and journeys 66” with each elongation from the Martian disk. PDS rings node or a good planetarium program such as Starry Night or Stellarium will show the current orientation of the Martian moons, aiding in your decision of whether or not to take up the quest.

Don’t miss out on Mars this opposition season… it’ll be almost another two decades before we get another favorable view.

Read all about viewing the planets, from observation to imaging and sketching in our new book: The Universe Today Guide to the Cosmos out October 23rd, now available for pre-order.

Top 2018 Astronomy Events

The final occultation of the bright star Aldebaran by the Moon for 2017. Dave Dickinson
2018 Astronomy – The final occultation of the bright star Aldebaran by the Moon for 2017. Dave Dickinson

Happy New Year 2018.

One of the toughest choices we made last year was to not write a full astronomy guide for 2018. We’ve done this in one iteration or another now for about a decade, but an ongoing project (also astronomical in nature) has consumed most of our writing hours… but we recently realized that we can still take stock in what’s in the sky for the year ahead, and give you a sneak peek at part of our project for the end of 2018.

The Rules:

What we’ve constructed is a simple three month strip chart denoting the top astronomical events by date. The big idea was to make a latitude independent version of the familiar hourglass chart, and distill the events down to the very best.

For the top events listed below for the entire year, we considered:

Meteor showers with a ZHR greater than 10, where the phase of the Moon is not within a week of Full;

-Oppositions of the outer planets;

-Elongations of the inner planets;

Eclipses of the Sun and Moon;

-The closest conjunction of two naked eye planets for 2018;

-The best easily visible occultation of a bright star and a planet for 2018;

Comets slated to reach perihelion in 2018 and forecast to break +10th magnitude.

The Best of 2018: (events in bold are the “best of the best”)

-Meteor Showers: Lyrids (April 22), Daytime Arietids (June 7), Perseids (Aug 12), Draconid Outburst? (Oct 8) Orionids (Oct 10), Andromedids (Dec 3), Geminids (Dec 14).

-Oppositions: Mars (Jul 27), Jupiter (May 8), Saturn (Jun 27), Uranus (Oct 23), Neptune (Sep 7), Pluto (Jul 12)

-Elongations: Mercury (Jan 1, Mar, 15, Apr 29, Jul 12, Aug 26, Nov 6, Dec 15). Venus (Aug 17)

-Eclipses: A Total Lunar eclipse for Asia, Australia the Pacific and western North America (Jan 31), a partial solar for the southern tip of South America (Feb 15), a partial solar for Tasmania and southernmost Australia (Jul 13), a total lunar for South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia (Jul 27), and a partial solar for Scandinavia and northern Asia (Aug 11),

-Closest conjunctions: Mars-Jupiter (January 7)

-Best occultation (planet): Mars for the southern tip of South America (Nov 16). The Moon occults 4 planets in 2018: Mercury (2), Mars (1), Venus (1), and Saturn (1)

-Best occultation (star): Aldebaran for northern Asia and Europe (Feb 23) The Moon occults Aldebaran 9 times and Regulus 5 times in 2018.

-Periodic Comets over magnitude +10 with perihelion dates: C/2016 M1 PanSTARRS (Aug 10, +9), C/2016 R2 PanSTARRS (May 9, mag +9), C/2017 S3 PanSTARRS (Aug 16, +4), 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (Sep 10, mag +4), 38P/Stephan-Oterma (Nov 11, mag +9), 46P/Wirtanen (Dec 13, mag +3)

The astronomical strip chart for the first 3 months of 2018:

Astronomical events for Jan-Mar 2018 (click the chart to see the full-sized version).

What’s Up for January-March 2018:

-The month of January 2018 kicks off with a Full Moon on the night of January 1-2, the first of two Full Moons in the month, the second of which is sometimes referred to as a Blue Moon. March 2018 also contains two Full Moons (March 2 and March 31), while the 28 day month of February lacks a Full Moon, the only month that can do so.

The Moon also continues its cycle of occultations of the bright stars Regulus and Aldebaran, favoring the following locations;

January 5- Regulus (Northern North America)

January 27-Aldebaran (Northern Pacific)

February 1- Regulus (NE Asia)

February 23- Aldebaran (northern Europe/northern Asia)

March 1-Regulus (North Atlantic)

March 22-Aldebaran (North Atlantic)

March 28-Regulus (NE Asia/Alaska)

The Moon also occults Mercury for NW North America (in the daytime) on February 15th, then Venus just 22 hours later favoring the southern tip of South America (in the daytime), though both events are too close to the Sun to observe.

The first of two eclipse seasons for 2018 also begins in January, with a total lunar eclipse centered over the Pacific Ocean and surrounding regions on January 31st and a 60% partial solar eclipse for the southern tip of South America on February 15.

Venus reaches superior conjunction on January 9th, and moves into the dusk sky for a brilliant dusk apparition later in 2018. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 23 degrees west of the Sun in the dawn sky on January 2, then reaches superior conjunction on the farside of the Sun on February 17 before catching up with Venus and passing just 66′ from it on March 4.

Mars, Jupiter and Saturn remain dawn objects through the first quarter of 2018, with Mars passing just 12′ from Jupiter on January 12.

Let us know what you think, as this quarterly product is very much a work in progress… we plan on bringing you the quarterly astronomical graphic chart here on Universe Today every three months.

We’re looking forward to bringing you another great year of sky watching in 2018!