Hello, Red Planet!

By Phil Plait | January 25, 2010 4:00 pm

If you’ve been outside after it gets dark lately, you may have noticed the brilliant reddish star in the east. But that’s no star; it’s Mars! About every year and a half, the Earth passes Mars as they both orbit the Sun, very much like how a faster racing car on the inside track laps a slower-moving car on the outside track.

When Earth does lap Mars, the Red Planet’s on the opposite side of the sky from the Sun, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise — we say that Mars is at opposition when that happens. When it does, we get two advantages in one: it’s at its closest point, so it’s bigger in telescopes, and it’s up all night so you can observe it at your convenience. This happens next in just a few days, on January 29, 2010.

That’s why the Beauty Without Borders program has set up a Mars observing campaign, to get everyone outside and looking at Mars. If you are part of a local astronomy group, let them know about the campaign, which lasts from tonight, January 25th, through the 30th. Get folks to attend and see Mars through a telescope! It won’t be terribly big like you might see in space probe pictures, of course, but you may catch the polar ice caps, or some other features.

And when the event is done, you can report your results to the Beauty without Borders group, so they can collate them. Did you see the same things as people across the world?

I love hearing about events like this. The hardest thing to do, sometimes, is simply to get people to look up. You really should try it. Otherwise, you’re missing the entire Universe.


Tip o’ the Tharsis shield to ThilinaH.


Comments (43)

Links to this Post

  1. Friday's Wolf Moon Will be Biggest of 2010 | January 29, 2010
  1. ozprof

    Hi BA,

    Just a little nitpik…… Mars does not reach opposition every year and a half….. it takes more like 2 years and 2 months on average.

  2. I love Mars. Sadly, it’s been mighty cloudy here lately… Someday I will move to AZ or NM and build an observatory. :-)

  3. Charlie Young

    What’ll it look like through my Gallileoscope? I guess I’ll find out!

  4. David D.G.

    On one cold winter evening in the late 1980s, I brought my little telescope out of mothballs to try to get a look at Mars when Earth was at one of its closest approaches to it. I set the ‘scope up behind the house where I rented a room at the time, aiming up at the portion of the sky where I hoped to find Mars. The telescope wasn’t a good model, though, and the tripod was loose as a goose, so I was having to spend a long time searching.

    The next thing I knew, two policemen came around the house and asked politely but pointedly what I was doing. I explained about Mars being close and the clear winter sky being ideal for viewing (well, as ideal as I could find in town anyway). Fortunately, one of the cops had actually heard about the Mars approach on the news, so he was able to validate my statement himself.

    The reason they were there? The paranoid lady who lived in the upstairs portion of the house next door had called the cops on me, thinking that my telescope was aimed at her window — roughly 20 feet away. The telescope was clearly aimed past the house and well above it; even so, after the police left, I called it a night and took my ‘scope inside. No point in antagonizing a neighbor, especially since I hadn’t found Mars anyway.

    The moral of this story is: If you go planet-hunting in a residential area, make sure that you alert your neighbors in advance, since not all police pay attention to astronomy news!

    ~David D.G.

  5. It is amazing how much people love looking up, and how few ever do. We (insert plug for Auckland Astronomical Society) run events pretty often which include public astronomy and the response is always fantastic. Even those who wander over to take the mickey (young males mostly) end up going oohh ahhh wow once they get their eye to the scope.

    Just the Moon does the trick… add a planet or two and the Orion nebula and they are hooked. We get so many new members this way.

  6. I’m beginning to like Wolfram|Alpha.


    Just type in “mars from [your city]” and it will show you all sorts of info, including a star chart. Or “mars from [your city] at [time]”. You might have to use a large nearby city rather than your actual location.


    Or even just “sky from [your city]” to get a star chart. Unfortunately, it only labels the Moon. Mars is drawn, but unlabeled.

    And then there’s Mars passing pretty close to the Moon. (Or is that the Moon passing pretty close to Mars?)


  7. Rory Kent

    I’ve been following Mars’s approach since August, taking note of how much larger it becomes and how much detail I can see. As I’m sure you can imagine, I was really getting excited about this opposition. Unfortunately the weather is terrible here (only 1 clear night this year!) and I don’t see that getting better any time soon.

    As they say “there’s always next time.” *grinds teeth*

  8. Sir Eccles

    Three back to back astronomy posts! I’m disgusted, I came here to rant about homeopathy and all I see is posts about bloody stars! I’m going home!

  9. Great story David D. G.! :) And thanks for reminding me of that link Ken B. I had totally forgot about it.

    The “Discovery Center” here in Concord (Christa McAullife – Alan Sheppard Observatory, not anything else with the name Discovery in it) does a Friday night thing for observations. One night when it’s not cloudy, I am taking the family there!

  10. Only thing I can see out here on the Wet Coast of Canada when I look up is the rain drops on my glasses!

  11. Kevin

    Isn’t Mars supposed to be as big as the Full Moon?

    Sorry, just kidding. ūüėÄ

    Unfortunately it’s going to be cloudy here, so I won’t be observing it here. But the concept is good though.

  12. @ Kevin:

    Jeebus, my mom forwards that damn email to me every year!

  13. ccpetersen

    Apparently, judging by the poster, only males get to go out and look for Mars. Be nice if at least one female was represented, neh?


    Several years ago a group of us observed Mars from the Florida Keys and we actually spotted specular reflection from ice on the surface in Sinus Sibaeus. Very cool. We actually got mentioned in an IAU circular. So, there IS something to be gained by gazing at Mars.

  14. JenniferBurdoo

    I tried out my Galileoscope for the first time the other night, on 25-power. I looked at what I believe was Mars, but didn’t get much more than a dot — no color or anything. I’m going to try to switch out for the 50-power eyepiece, but given my tripod I may not be able to hold it in view. It’s either too loose or too tight — I can find a star but not tighten the tripod neatly enough to keep it in view, or I can tighten the tripod but not center the telescope on my aiming point.

  15. Ken

    Argh, bloody miserable weather … :-(

  16. Daniel J. Andrews

    O/T (but still dealing with “red”)—

    Phil, here’s an idea for a blog post at http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2010/01/seeing_red_in_the_sky.php

    Sirius was described as “red” by Ptolemy (and some other writers). Was it actually red at one time? If not, why was it described that way?

  17. Charlie Young

    Question answered: It’s a little red dot in the Gallileoscope! Guess I need to find a local astronomy group with bigger aperture ‘scopes.

  18. A small request Phil. When you write about things visible in the night skies, can you insert just a little info about who should see it? Is this just northern hemisphere or almost everywhere? Ta.

  19. At the last close approach of Mars, I rolled my LX200 out of the garage just like I had for many nights previous –enjoying the view and the peaceful solitude. I stopped to take a hand-held picture with my Canon 20D. With the camera poised at my face… i distinctly felt something step onto my toes… first one foot, then the other. Then I felt something lightly touch my knee (and stay there). It was time to look down VERY slowly while still keeping my hands motionless. There was a raccoon looking UP at ME!

    I immediately named her “Star”, gave her some treats, and we became midnight stargazers together for years.

  20. csrster

    Mars is in Cancer, about 15 degrees north of the equator, so it should be visible everywhere except Antarctica, although more prominent for northern hemisphere observers. On the other hand, you southern types can enjoy a pleasant summer evening of planet-watching while we northerners have to unfreeze our eyeballs from our telescopes.

  21. Many thanks for putting a post about “Beauty Without Borders – HELLO RED PLANET”.

    Our first BWB program was last year – “BWB – An Evening for Venus”. You did a post on that as well. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/02/25/beauty-without-borders/

    Let’s welcome the Red Planet! :)

  22. Pieter Kok

    We were camping in Death Valley three weeks ago (carefully timed for a late moonrise), and I noticed that Mars was very bright indeed. Jupiter was there too, to the delight of my three-year old who loves this planet. We even spotted a very faint Andromeda galaxy. How Messier was able to spot this over the Paris night sky remains a mystery to me.

    The downside of camping in DV this time of year under a clear sky: we got to test our sleeping bags to their advertised minimum temperature (0 C), which was somewhat exaggerated…

  23. MPG

    I know it’s nonsense about Mars appearing as big as the full moon, but does it mean we can make bacon stand on its end? I’d be willing to understand some experiments on that one. I’d also like to see if thick slices of bread and dollops of HP Sauce affect the results.

  24. Mark Hansen

    AndyD, the easiest way to find out what’s visible is by using some planetarium software. Try Stellarium (www.stellarium.org); it’s free, works, and gives you a WYGIWYS screen. Just make sure your ground co-ordinates are reasonably accurate. It even has an optional red screen display so as not to interfere with dark adjusted eyes if you use it on a laptop outdoors.

  25. Nicola

    I’ve been watching Mars almost every night, since I learned to recognize it… but I can’t see more than a reddish dot :-(

    I can’t wait till I get my Galileoscope! I hope it arrives this week.

  26. Grand Lunar

    I was hoping that this news would come out; I’ve been observing Mars for a couple of weeks now.
    Well, with my eyes alone. Only used my ‘scope a few times.

    I have a difficult time making out any features.
    The thing is a Newtonian reflector with a 4 1/2 inch objective.
    My highest magnification is 125x.

    Is that enough to see anything?
    I have noticed a wavering appearence at times when I’ve seen the moon; can this effect observations of Mars?

  27. I want to see it but chances are it will be too overcast to even see it from where I am in Michigan. :(

  28. ccpetersen:

    Apparently, judging by the poster, only males get to go out and look for Mars. Be nice if at least one female was represented, neh?

    Of course it’s only guys that hang out at night to look at the sky.

    Just make sure that, if you run into any 60’ish librarians in a VW minibus, you don’t eat the brownies.

  29. Zucchi

    I get up at 5:30 in the morning; I’ve been noticing Mars, bright and beautiful in the West before sunup. I have no telescope, whereas my girlfriend’s brother-in-law has a 6-inch Meade that he doesn’t know how to use.

  30. rob

    poor mars. it’s in cancer. maybe some homeopathy will cure it?

  31. Gus Snarp

    Hmm. Mostly cloudy tonight. Darn, the day started so clear. OK, assuming I get a break in the clouds, how does a total novice like me find Mars?

  32. BJN

    Loves me some epicycles!

  33. Sidewalk astronomy is a brilliant tool for catching the public’s attention to astronomy. People is really grateful and more interested in science and astronomy after looking for a first time through an eyepiece. And kids, oh well, they are the real ones enjoying the events.

    So, get your telescope no matter the its size and take it to the streets. Print the artwork and hang it somewhere and let the other discover and explore the wonders of the sky.


  34. KC

    Couple posts above mention having difficulty seeing anything on Mars – remember that even though Mars is at its closest now, it is a really small planet and is is still million of miles away. So you are going to be needing higher power, say 150 to 200 power.

    Grand Lunar – you -should be able to see at least one of the ice caps with that size scope, but it depends on how steady the atmosphere is. If you see stars twinkling like crazy, you won’t get a good view and will have to wait for a better night.

  35. Nick

    Daniel J. Andrews: Sirius was described as red because when it’s low on the horizon it often appears to flash different colors. It’s light gets broken up by air currents in the atmosphere.

    I actually saw it change between red, green, blue, or white every second or so…It was amazing to say the least. Saw this in November during the Leonids Meteor shower.

  36. Daniel J. Andrews

    That was my first thought too, Nick, but it seems unlikely ancient observers were fooled by this, especially the experienced observers like Ptolemy.

  37. Jeffersonian

    Read this post; looked out kitchen window; there it was; put on a coat; set stuff up outside; enjoyed.

    @Pieter Kok
    Bags. There’s no one agreed-upon standard for those ratings. Additionally, it can mean either survival rating or comfort rating (a difference of maybe 30 degrees?). The best you can do is go with the best material (if using synthetic, otherwise best quality lofted down), a name brand, and don’t skimp on cost. If you need a serious bag, check and see what mountaineers are using in the Saint Elias currently. Since that would cook you in many contig applications outside of winter, if you need one do-all bag, go with an additional outer or a spec liner. Make sure your thermarest is current as well since the ground is the conductor.

  38. Asimov Fan

    @ 16. Daniel J. Andrews, 35. Nick & 36. Daniel J. Andrews :

    Sirius was described as ‚Äúred‚ÄĚ by Ptolemy (and some other writers). Was it actually red at one time? If not, why was it described that way?

    Several ancient Greek and Roman authors apparently mistakenly refered to Sirius as red incl. Ptolemy, the poet Horace who wrote ‚Äúthe redness of the Dogstar is burning; that of Mars is milder ..‚ÄĚ and the orator Seneca. (P. 25, ‘Brilliant Stars’ Moore, 1996.) This led to a later controversy over whether Sirius had in fact changed colour and whether the Pup may have been a red giant in historical times.

    However, not only is the timescale for that utterly wrong but during the same time Chinese and other careful observers of the heavens recorded Sirius as white meaning the whole curious ‚Äúred Sirius‚ÄĚaffair must be considered an error possibly caused by Sirius‚Äô scintillating (‚Äútwinkling‚ÄĚ) and to its being viewed low down on the horizon and also maybe translation problems.

    That’s one of a couple of “red herring” stories involving Sirius, another common one being that the Dogon tribe in Mali knew about Siriuses binary nature from their ancient history through weird means – when their knowledge of that probably became incorporated into their mythology from meeting some European astronomers who visited the region for an 1893 solar eclipse.

    Stars-wise you can compare Mars’ colour with red supergiants Betelgeux (which is visible now) and Antares (visible later in Nthn Hempisphere Summer & Sthn Hemisphere winter) esp. given that Mars helped give Antares its name which means “rival of Ares. (Mars.)”

  39. Grand Lunar

    Many thanks, KC.

    Indeed, I did notice the effects of bad seeing conditions when I tried observing Mars last night.
    Even occured looking at the moon.

    I also wonder if my eyepieces aren’t so great.
    Two of them came with the telescope, a Tasco. Another was bought seperately (far as I know, as my grandfather bought it).
    The two have this distortion when the object is not centered exactly. The image appears stretched.
    The third eyepiece doesn’t have this effect. Too bad it’s only 45x.

  40. mike burkhart

    thanks for this article if the weather is good Ill take a look I’ve seen Mars on other close approches to Earth its the best time to observe the planet by the way this proved that the Earth revolved around the sun an Earth centered solar system could not explane why Mars moved backwards in the sky at certan time of the year but a Sun centered solar system did

  41. I’d love to get out and do some viewing, but given we’re having sub-zero temps at night, I think I’ll take a quick glance and hurry back inside. :-)

  42. Denver Astronomer

    Hey guys – Mars is behind you! And it’s pretty darn close, so watch out!


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