Find the red planet
Astronomers say it is possible to see Mars this month, but it’ll take a little work, starting with an alarm clock.
• Rise and shine. “Mars rises in the east around 4 a.m. at the beginning of the month and slowly moves to around 3:15 a.m. at the end of August,” said Dr. James Sowell, astronomer and professor of physics at Georgia Tech.
• A clear point of reference may be helpful to amateur sky gazers. “If you don’t know your way around the sky, the best way is to wait until it is near an easily identifiable object, like the moon,” said Dr. Loris Magnani, professor of astronomy at the University of Georgia.
• They don’t call it the red planet for nothing. “Mars is often one of the brighter objects in the sky, and it does have an orange tint,” Sowell said. “It will be in the Eastern half of the sky for the rest of the year during the mornings. It will move from the constellation Gemini to Leo.”
• Study up. Learn to identify those constellations by visiting a planetarium, reading an astronomy book, using the Internet or downloading a smart-phone app.
The Mars hoax, which originated as a widely circulated email in 2003, once again is popping up in inboxes around the country. According to scientists at EarthSky, an online community of global science advisors and experts who review content and research, the deceptive message makes the rounds every year, leading many people to believe Mars will appear as large as a full moon Aug. 27.
What many people don’t know, however, is that the fabrication actually is loosely based on facts. In August 2003, Mars was indeed much closer to Earth than it had been for almost 60,000 years, according to EarthSky. It was about 56 million kilometers away at the time, making it the largest and brightest body in the sky aside from the moon. While the planet did emit a visible red glow, it still was about 75 times smaller than the moon.
In fact, according to www.NASA.gov, “the only way to see Mars as large as the full moon is to board a spaceship.”
Although it is possible to spot the red planet at certain times this month, amateur astronomers should not expect Mars to return to its 2003 brilliance for quite some time.
“If you don’t have a star chart or you don’t know your way around the night sky, you won’t be able to distinguish it from another star,” said Dr. Loris Magnani, professor of astronomy at the University of Georgia.
Expensive magnification equipment and binoculars likely won’t help much either.
“Do not rush out to buy a telescope,” advises Dr. James Sowell, astronomer and professor of physics at Georgia Tech. “It is extremely difficult to see any surface features, and the apparent size of Mars through a telescope is not very large. Invest your time in learning the night sky with the unaided eye.”
Because of their elliptical orbits, according to EarthSky, Earth and Mars move fairly close to each other roughly once every two years, but the 2003 pass was the closest the planets have been since about 57,600 B.C., and will be until at least the year 2287.
Although Mars is somewhat visible this month, it actually will reach a closer orbit in early March 2012. Anyone who hopes to catch a glimpse of the red planet this year will need to get up just before dawn and use the moon as a guide.
“Mars will be in the predawn sky in the east, visible about an hour before sunrise in the constellation Gemini,” Magnani said.
Sky gazers won’t have a big window of opportunity, but pinpointing Mars’ location shouldn’t take too long.
“It is a trade-off: You want Mars to be as high in the sky as possible, but you want to see it before the twilight gets very bright,” Sowell said. “To view it with the naked-eye is easy, and it will be one of the last objects to disappear into the sky glow. A good time would be around 5:30-6 a.m.”
Late sleepers, have no fear.
“Mars will be an early morning object for the next several months,” Sowell said, and in February 2012, “it will … become an evening ‘star.’”
Mars will become visibly brighter throughout the year and “in the next 12 months,” Magnani said, “the best time (to view it) will be next March.”
“You can see it from now until well into next year,” he said. “It’s a somewhat bright, reddish looking object.”