Encounter with Mars

Ken Tapping, August 8th, 2018

In the sky this week…

  • On the weekend of 11-12 August, Earth will be passing through a stream of comet debris. As the particles enter our atmosphere they burn up, giving us our annual Perseid Meteor Shower. Keep an eye on the north-eastern sky.
  • Venus lies low in the west after sunset, with Jupiter in the southwest and Saturn in the south after dark.
  • Mars rises around 10 pm.
  • The Moon will be New on the 11th.

We are now having a close encounter with Mars. The planet rises as a brilliant reddish lamp in the south-eastern sky around 10 pm. It’s clear why Mars is also often referred to as the “Red Planet”.

Earth is the third planet out from the Sun; Mars is the fourth. We take almost 365.25 days to complete each lap around the Sun, and Mars takes 687. This means that every 780 days or so the Earth overtakes Mars, passing between it and the Sun. We call these events “oppositions” because at that time the Earth is exactly between the planet and the Sun, so the Sun and planet are on opposite sides of the sky. Astronomers look forward to these close encounters

However, not all oppositions of Mars are created equal. Mars’ orbit is elliptical rather than circular, taking it between 208 and 249 million kilometres from the Sun. Earth’s orbit is not quite circular either, ranging between 147 and 152 million kilometres from the Sun. So during an encounter the distance between the two worlds can vary a lot depending on where they are in their respective orbits. The closest encounters occur when Earth is at its furthest from the Sun and Mars is at its closest, when the two worlds pass within 56 million kilometres of each other. The most distant ones happen when Mars is at its most distant from the Sun and Earth is at its closest, in which case the closest they get is about 102 million kilometres. Of course most times the Earth overtakes Mars the two planets are neither at their farthest nor closest to the Sun, so the encounter distance is something in between. The current opposition is not one of the closest ones, but it is still a good one, with Mars coming to within 59 million kilometres.

Mars has always been a tantalizing object to observe. Even in opposition it is not that large in the sky. Moreover, since it is opposite the Sun, in our Northern Hemisphere Summer, when the Sun is high in the sky during the day, Mars will be low in the sky at night; this is not ideal for observing. We have to wait for the moments when the shimmering of our atmosphere steadies and we get a few seconds of good viewing.

It is the difficulty in observing Mars that led to the “discovery of Martian canals”.  In the 19th Century Schiaparelli reported he saw “canali” on Mars. This is Italian for “channels”, but was mistranslated into English as “canals”. This launched the idea of the Martians undertaking a global water managing system on their drying-up world. In the 1890s, Percival Lowell built an observatory primarily to map Mars, and he carefully recorded a complex canal network. However, then the doubts started.

In those days astrophotography was in its infancy and the long exposures needed yielded blurry images. The maps of Mars were drawn by observers as they stared hard at Mars for hours, waiting for those moments of good “seeing”. Some astronomers noticed that when observing conditions are good and the observers’ eyes are not tired there were no signs of canals: just blobs and patches. When the conditions were not so good and fatigue was setting in, out popped the canals. In the 1960s the Mariner 4 spacecraft put an end to the canals. The images it sent back as it flew past Mars showed a cratered desert. There were no canals and no locals waving as the spacecraft shot past. Now is the time to get out your telescope. You should see a dusty red planet with some darker patches and one of its prominent polar ice caps. Watch for the canals. Next time we’ll look at the recent discovery of a Martian lake.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory.

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