Starwatch: Mars will be close this month

  • By Mike Lynch
  • Friday, January 22, 2010 3:21pm
  • Life

Every summer there’s misleading e-mail that circulating about how on Aug. 27 Mars will be as close as it’s been to Earth in 60,000 years and will be as big as a full moon.

Some folks have fallen for it, grabbing lawn chairs, mosquito juice and over inflated high hopes to see this momentous event, and … nothing happens. Just another pleasant evening under the stars.

The annual Mars hoax is based on a real event that did take place on Aug. 27, 2003, when Mars was the closest it’s been to Earth in 60,000 years. It was a great event, but by no means was Mars as big as a full moon, not even close.

This month Mars will be the closest it’s been in more than two years. Astronomers call it opposition, and it happens when the Earth and another planet are lined up with the sun, with the Earth in between the sun and the planet.

This only happens to a planet like Mars that is farther away from the sun than Earth. As you can see in the diagram, that geometrically puts the sun and Mars at their minimum distance. This set up occurs every 780 days, a little over two years. The actual date of opposition this time with Mars is Jan. 27 when the Red Planet will be 61.6 million miles away.

Not all oppositions are alike, especially in the case of Mars, because Mars’ orbit is slightly oval. As it orbits the sun every 687 days, Mars reaches perihelion, or it’s closest point to the sun, about 128 million miles, and aphelion, or it’s farthest point away, at nearly 157 million miles.

This eccentricity of Mars’ orbit is affected by the gravitational influence of other planets, especially the very massive Jupiter.

This time around Mars is nearly at apehelion with the sun during opposition, and that puts the distance between Earth and Mars a little greater than average. So this opposition with Mars won’t be all that great.

In August 2003 Mars and Earth were only separated by 34.3 million miles. This time around Mars will be nearly 62 million miles at opposition. The next really close opposition of Mars will take place in 2018 when the Red Planet will be just under 36 million miles from our backyards.

Finding Mars in the evening sky is easy. Just look for the brightest starlike object you can see in the low eastern sky. It has a copper-red tinge to it. Even with a telescope you’re not going to see much detail.

You may a small reddish disk, and if conditions are just right, you might see a little patch of white on the upper limb of the disk. If your telescope gives you an upside down inverted view, like most do, what you can see of the polar cap will be on the lower limb of the disk.

It’s also a good idea to wait until Mars is higher in the sky to view with your telescope, after about 10 p.m.

Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and at his Web site www.lynchandthestars.com.

The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members. Go to www.everettastro.org/.

Talk to us

More in Life

Ask a pediatrician: Are infrared thermometers safe to use on children?

Some posts on social media warn about the possible dangers of non-contact infrared thermometers.

Health check: Why it’s important to ask an expert about nutrition

They call her “Dr. Quinn, Nutrition Woman” — even though she’s not a doctor — because of the Western TV show.

Pinto greens and beans, in this case, spinach, is a Hispanic take on a favorite Pittsburgh Italian dish. (Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/TNS)
The classic Italian ‘beans and greens’ gets a Latin spin

A charred tomatillo salsa adds a bright and zesty finish to this traditional comfort food.

Ancient White Park cows belonging to Burt Degroot Wednesday afternoon on a pasture on Ebey Island April 1, 2020 (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Snohomish rancher raises an ancient breed of cattle

The distinctive British horned livestock have been around since the Middle Ages.

Public Health Essentials! (Snohomish Health District)
How employers can help defeat this pandemic through vaccination

Public Health Essentials! A blog by the Snohomish Health District.

According to Toyota, the 2021 Sienna minivan’s front design was inspired by the Shinkansen Japanese bullet train to impart a sleek, speedy and confident appearance. (Manufacturer photo)
2021 Toyota Sienna might be a game-changer for minivans

All new from the ground up, this fourth-generation version is styled to the nines. Seriously.

A pile of shoes by the front door can be annoying, but it is also evidence of loved ones living together under one roof. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Remembering to cherish the things a mom takes for granted

Here’s to the noise, the mess and the laughter that fills life between now and when the kids are grown.

Dr. Paul on battling adversity when it feels like a ‘dark night’

The Dalai Lama says: There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done — yesterday and tomorrow.

In the Netherlands, pot users go to coffeeshops — not jail.
A coffee shop conversation about marijuana in Amsterdam

If you pass a shop in the Netherlands full of plants displaying a Rastafarian flag, it doesn’t sell much coffee.

Most Read