Looking Up: Mars draws our eyes to the sky

Peter Becker More Content Now
This is Mars, photographed by an amateur astronomer in 2003. 

Rochus Hess/Wikimedia Commons

  Mars is helping us draw our eyes to the evening night sky as the Red Planet shines brightly in the southeast.

  Every 2.1 years the planet passes Earth, but it isn’t always very bright. Because its orbit is rather elliptical, it varies considerably in how close it comes. To get the general public’s attention, it needs to stand out, and this year is one of those times.

   Before we go any further, note that this is nothing to worry about. Mars is only close astronomically-speaking. It is still more than 46.7 million miles away on May 30. It can get as close as approximately 35 million miles, and that’s still no reason to duck. I mention this because of some fanatical emails that have been passed around in recent years spelling and conjuring thoughts best left for science fiction.

   We are probably more educated about our nearest planetary neighbor than ever thanks to the astounding success of recent Mars landers and orbiting spacecraft sent by NASA as well as other nations’ space programs. The discovery of thousands of planets orbiting other stars in recent years, all the while homing in on possible earth-like worlds makes it all the more exciting.

   While there may not be any little green Martians or flying saucers on Mars, we have found it may well have harbored life in the past and potentially still might. We are also living in the most amazing time in that it is technologically possible that we may see a manned landing on Mars within the life span of many today. NASA currently projects sometime in the 2030s.

   As exciting as this all may be, we don’t need, or shouldn’t need any of these developments to stimulate our interest in just looking up at the stars and planets. A telescope isn’t even needed to appreciate the night sky, although you will likely soon want a closer look.

   Mars is currently appearing as a very bright point of light in the southeast. In late May it will be highest in the south around midnight. Its color is more amber than red, but it is very noticeable to most eyes. 

   It is making a large right triangle with the bright reddish star Antares and the bright yellow-white planet Saturn to the left. Mars is by far the brightest.

   A telescope of only three inches aperture, when Mars is this close, may begin to show hints of the dark areas on the Martian surface, and even the white polar cap. Larger telescopes will show more; you will need steady atmospheric seeing, practice, persistence and patience. Use high power, around 100x to 200x. You will find a lot more information on viewing Mars, including a map, at skyandtelescope.com.

   Meanwhile don’t overlook Jupiter, which is high up in the south-southwest as darkness falls. Jupiter appears bright and white. A small telescope will show its disc and four bright moons shining like little stars on one side or another.

  With just eyes alone, feast on the springtime constellations the next clear night. Last quarter Moon is on May 29, meaning you will have dark evening skies all week. Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines feature monthly star charts; also borrow an astronomy book from your local public library.

  Keep looking up!

— Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.