See the Red Planet from York


Above: The relative sizes of Earth, Mars and the Moon

Mars just won’t stay out of the limelight. First there was the announcement last week of York’s involvement in the Phoenix Scout Mission to the planet in 2007. And now there’s the news about York celebrating Mars Week August 25 to 29. The University is inviting the public to view the Red Planet from the Keele campus telescopes.

Mars will become as close to us earthlings as has ever been recorded, and the planet’s luminosity will be at its maximum. Better take a good look at it now, since people won’t have a chance to see the planet this close again until August 2287.

You will be able to see the Red Planet, the fourth from the Sun, through the York Astronomical Observatory (right) and the new Arboretum Observing Facility on the roof of the William Small Centre.

“This opportunity to observe Mars is exciting for anyone who enjoys the sky. It is an opportunity for people to come out and see not only what York University has to offer but also what the sky has to reveal,” said Paul Delaney, master of Bethune College, senior lecturer in the Department of Physics & Astronomy and director of the Division of Natural Science in the Faculty of Pure & Applied Science.

Overview of Mars Week at York

  • Date: Aug. 25–29
  • Time: 9pm–11:30pm
  • Locations: York University Arboretum Observing Facility, located on the top of the southeast corner of the William Small Centre (formerly known as Parking Structure II), and the York University Astronomical Observatory in the Petrie Building
  • Cost: Visits to the observatory are free but donations are appreciated

Left: Earth and Mars in opposition

“Because it takes two Earth years for Mars to orbit the Sun,” explained Delaney, “Earth and Mars come into opposition almost every two years. ‘Opposition’ is when the planets line up with respect to each other and the sun. This year the opposition will occur when the orbits are closest – 56 million km.”

During Mars Watch at York, there will be slide show presentations as well as NASA TV, which is broadcast campuswide on channel 30, courtesy of a dish mounted on the Stedman Lecture Hall and monitored by York’s Instructional Technology Centre staff. “Whenever we have public viewing events, we have NASA TV on,” said Delaney.

Here are excerpts from a pamphlet about Mars Watch at York, written by Heather Henry, an Aurora High School co-op student who worked with Delaney for four months.

Right: Image of Mars’ south polar cap – NASA photo

Knowledgeable staff at the observatory and arboretum observing facilities will be on hand to answer questions or concerns throughout the nighttime observation events. Children are encouraged to visit – no age limit applies. No prior astronomy knowledge is required; simply bring an open mind. Everyone can enjoy the beauty and mysteries of the night sky, so don’t be shy.

While the show will go on regardless of weather, the telescopes will only be operational when weather permits.

Quick facts about Mars

  • Size: 3,400 km radius (0.53 Earth radius)
  • Mass: 0.11 of Earth’s mass
  • Moons: 2 (Phobos and Deimos)
  • Distance from Sun: 228 million km
  • Length of day: 24 hours 37 minutes
  • Length of Year: 687 earth days
  • Average temperature: -62.8° C 
  • Gravity: 0.375 times that of the Earth’s

Frequently asked questions about Mars

Why is Mars so often referred to as the Red Planet? Where does the name Mars come from?

Long ago the ancient Greeks named the planet Mars after their god of war because of its colour. Mars is visibly red, even to the naked eye. Its colour is due to large amounts of iron in the soil. That is why it is so often referred to as the Red Planet.

What causes seasonal colour changes?

The seasonal colour changes on the planet Mars are not due to plant growth, as there is no plant life. The change is caused by strong winds that lift the red soil into the atmosphere. When this dust clouds the atmosphere, the surface of the planet appears to change.

Right: Would a Martian look like this? 

Can humans live on Mars?

Humans would not be able to breath the air on Mars because it has too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen or nitrogen. If we were to live on Mars one day we would need to bring our own oxygen or find a way to recycle the carbon dioxide. Plants use carbon dioxide and then discard oxygen so we would have to create lots of greenhouses.

Do I need a telescope to see Mars? When can I see it in the night sky?

You do not need a telescope to see Mars, although through a telescope the planet’s features will become more evident. During Mars Week York will have telescopes available for use with staff supervision.

Have spacecrafts ever found evidence of life on Mars? Why is finding water so important?

Water is thought to be one of the necessary substances for life. Finding liquid water would most probably mean that at least microscopic life forms could exist on the planet. Water has been found on Mars but it is all frozen. Some photographic evidence reveals that large quantities of liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars, but this water has all vanished today. Despite all of this, no life has been found on Mars as of yet.

Left: Gullies and streaks on Mars’ Kaiser Crater wall – NASA photo

Are there volcanoes on Mars?

Mars contains the largest known volcanoes in the entire solar system. The biggest one is known as Olympus Mons and rises to a height of 25 km. Compare that to Mount Everest, which is just over 8.8 km in height.

Would I be lighter or heavier on Mars?

You would be 2.7 times lighter on Mars than you are on Earth.

In the run-up to Mars Week, the planet has been generating a lot more interest than usual. Just last week there was the announcement about York’s Phoenix team having been selected for NASA’s 2007 Scout Mission to Mars. Instruments on the mission will measure the pressure and temperature of the atmosphere and provide details on dust and water clouds in the atmosphere. York’s computer models will bring valuable insights to increase our understanding of the Martian atmosphere, its temperature, winds, water and cloud formations.

For general information about the York Astronomical Observatory visit To read more about the Phoenix team’s participation in the Scout Mission, see YFile at