Mars is bright, bold and golden in its hue, dominating the sky all night long as July sweeps into August, 2018. The fourth planet from the Sun reaches "opposition" July 27, opposite the Sun from the Earth and rising around sunset. Mars stay up all night and sets about when the Sun peaks over the northeast horizon.
In early evening look for Mars low in the southeast. The planet is at its highest in the southern sky around 1 a.m., daylight savings time. As seen from the latitudes of mid-America, Mars doesn’t get very high up in the sky this time around; you needn’t crane your neck to see it!!
The planet is unmistakable. Not only is it brilliant, nothing in the sky this bright compares in color. We call it the "Red Planet" because it is more red than blue to be sure. Neither are white people "white" and black people "black."
Why some imaginative writer said the supposed Martians are "green" I have no idea but if there were any, they probably wouldn’t be really green!
Back to science. How would you judge Mars’ color? Is it red-orange? Golden? Rusty?
Mars isn’t always this spectacular because of its orbit, and the orbit of the Earth. Mars goes around the Sun in approximately two Earth years, so it catches up and comes closest to the Earth about every two years. Nonetheless, both planets have elliptical, not circular orbits, so the distance between the plants varies — a lot.
This year, Mars is "only" 38.5 million miles away. It is closest to Earth on July 31.
My old car has a ways to go. I thought 100,000 miles was something.
Most of the time Mars appears in the sky like an average star, with a red tinge, and hardly anyone in the general public would notice. When it is at opposition, it is hard not to notice. 2018 marks the closest Mars has been since 2004, when it was even closer, and brighter.
Mars reaches magnitude -2.8 in brightness, more than any night-time star and similar to the giant planet Jupiter when it is at its closest.
At this time even a fairly small telescope magnifying about 60x will show a small disc. A telescope of about 6" aperture and bigger, with higher magnification, steady atmosphere (very important) and experience, can reveal amazing surface details.
You may have success with smaller telescopes too. With a 3" telescope I was delighted to catch the bright white polar cap, and at least vague, dark smudges on the red desert surface. The dark areas of Mars are regions of varying contrast. They are depicted on maps and globes of Mars, with each feature named. The darkest, most obvious feature is "Syrtis Major" and is shaped like a triangle or wedge. This is easiest to see in a small telescope. A red filter on the eyepiece helps.
Mars rotates once in 24 hours, 37 minutes — just over an Earth day. Each night at the same time a slightly different portion of Mars will be facing you.
Currently a planet-wide dust storm is raging on Mars, making observations more challenging.
I’ve always likened the view of a total lunar eclipse to something how Mars would look in an approaching spacecraft.
Mars has had a mystique on mankind for thousands of years. It’s named for the Roman god of war. In the late 19th century the idea arose that there were canals on Mars, an irrigation system of a Martian civilization struggling to survive.
Science fiction writers such as H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke popularized the theme and helped reinforce the notion we may be invaded by flying saucers. Instead, we are the invaders- but we come in peace. Space faring nations of Earth have Mars well covered with landers, rovers and orbiting surveillance satellites. Mars has been found to be intriguingly dynamic with lots of evidence it once had oceans of water, and perhaps thick ice underneath. Microbial Martian life of some sort has not been ruled out and the dream of sending astronauts to Mars is alive and well.
Mars remains bright all summer, into fall, decreasing gradually. The planet will become conveniently placed in the evening sky in August.
Last quarter Moon is on August 4.
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.