Why is Mars Red?

Another name for Mars is the Red Planet, and if you’ve ever seen it in the sky when the planet is bright and close to Earth, it appears like a bright red star. In Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war, so… think blood.

Even photos from spacecraft show that it’s a rusty red color. The hue comes from the fact that the surface is *actually* rusty, as in, it’s rich in iron oxide.

Iron left out in the rain and will get covered with rust as the oxygen in the air and water reacts with the iron in the metal to create a film of iron oxide.

Mars’ iron oxide would have formed a long time ago, when the planet had more liquid water. This rusty material was transported around the planet in dust clouds, covering everything in a layer of rust. In fact, there are dust storms on Mars today that can rise up and consume the entire planet, obscuring the entire surface from our view. That dust really gets around.

But if you look closely at the surface of Mars, you’ll see that it can actually be many different colours. Some regions appear bright orange, while others look more brown or even black. But if you average everything out, you get Mars’ familiar red colour.

If you dig down, like NASA’s Phoenix Lander did in 2008, you get below this oxidized layer to the rock and dirt beneath. You can see how the tracks from the Curiosity Rover get at this fresh material, just a few centimeters below the surface. It’s brown, not red.

And if you could stand on the surface of Mars and look around, what colour would the sky be? Fortunately, NASA’s Curiosity Rover is equipped with a full colour camera, and so we can see roughly what the human eye would see.

The sky on Mars is red too.

The sky here is blue because of Raleigh scattering, where blue photons of light are scattered around by the atmosphere, so they appear to come from all directions. But on Mars, the opposite thing happens. The dust in the atmosphere scatters the red photons, makes the sky appear red. We have something similar when there’s pollution or smoke in the air.

But here’s the strange part. On Mars, the sunsets appear blue. The dust absorbs and deflects the red light, so you see more of the blue photons streaming from the Sun. A sunset on Mars would be an amazing event to see with your own eyes. Let’s hope someone gets the chance to see it in the future.
We have written many articles about Mars on Universe Today. Here’s an article about a one-way, one-person trip to Mars, and here’s another about how scientists know the true color of planets like Mars.

Here are some nice color images captured of the surface of Mars from NASA’s Pathfinder mission, and here’s another explainer about why Mars is red from Slate Magazine.

We have recorded several podcasts just about Mars. Including Episode 52: Mars and Episode 92: Missions to Mars, Part 1.

Sources:
http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/qna/questions/FAQ_GeneraL_Mars.htm
http://mpfwww.jpl.nasa.gov/programmissions/missions/past/pathfinder/
http://www.slate.com/id/2093779/

Beginner’s Guide To Binoculars

Before you consider buying expensive equipment for viewing the wonders of the night sky, binoculars are one piece of equipment every amateur astronomer should have.

Many beginners to astronomy (especially around the holiday period) are sometimes dead-set on getting a telescope, but many aren’t aware that a good pair of binoculars can outperform many entry level telescopes for a similar cost, or much less.

Binoculars are simplicity in themselves — maintenance free, instantly available for use and very versatile, as they can be used for daytime, or “terrestrial viewing” just as well. It is difficult to say the same for with most telescopes.

Go into any photographic store, or website that sells binoculars and you will be met with literally hundreds of different makes, types and sizes – confusing for the beginner, but with a few pointers it can be easy to choose.

Credit: astronomybinoculars.com

So how do you choose a pair of binoculars that will give good results with astronomy?

When choosing binoculars for astronomy, the only variables you need to think about are size of the optics and weight.

Too small and they won’t be powerful enough or let enough light in; too big and heavy means they are almost impossible to use without a support or tripod. Beginners need to find a pair of binoculars which are just right.

The key is to get as much light into the binoculars as possible without making them too heavy. This will give sharp views and comfort when used.

Size and weight come hand in hand, the more light gathered, the heavier the binoculars will be.

All binoculars are measured or rated by two numbers, for example: 10 X 25 or 15 X 70. The first number is the magnification and the second number is the “objective diameter” which is the diameter of the objective lens and this determines how much light can be gathered to form an image.

Credit: Halfblue Wikipedia

The second number or objective diameter is the most important one to consider when buying binoculars for astronomy, as you need to gather as much light as possible.

As a rule of thumb, binoculars with an objective diameter of 50mm or more are more suited to astronomy than smaller “terrestrial” binoculars. In many cases a larger objective also gives better eye relief (larger exit pupil) making the binoculars much more comfortable to use.

For the beginner or general user, don’t go too big with the objective diameter as you are also making the binoculars physically larger and heavier. Large binoculars are fantastic, but — again — almost impossible to keep steady without a support or tripod.

Celestron Skymaster 15 X 70 Binoculars

Good sizes of binoculars for astronomy start at around or just under 10 X 50 and can go up to 20 X 80, but any larger and they will need to be supported when using them. Some very good supported binoculars have objective diameters of more than 100mm. Theses are fantastic, but not as portable as their smaller counterparts.

Binoculars are one of the most important items a new or seasoned astronomer can buy. They are inexpensive, easy to choose, use and will last a very long time.

Enjoy your new binoculars!