Look up! Mars won’t be this close to Earth again until 2035

MARS
Photo of Mars (image:NASA/ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)

In the midst of a pandemic, there are still a few reasons to look up. Mars will be brighter than usual this month as it moves closer to Earth in what’s called Mars Opposition. It won’t be this close again for another 15 years, says York University astronomer Elaina Hyde. 

In the days leading up to Mars opposition on Oct. 13, the Earth will be directly between the red planet and the Sun, making it easier to see various details on the surface of Mars, such as the southern polar cap, volcanoes and the “Eye of Mars.”

The public can tune into the Allan I. Carswell Observatory’s live event, including talks and real-time images of Mars through the one-metre telescope.

“During this event, Mars can be found in the constellation Pisces with a visible mag -2.7, this means it will be brighter than Sirius and brighter than Jupiter,” says Hyde. “In the weeks leading up to opposition, you can observe many different Martian features you may not otherwise see.” 

The observatory will show live telescope images to the public on its YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/YorkUObservatory/live) on Oct. 3 and 6, and from Oct. 11 to 15, from 8 to 10 p.m., as long as the weather is clear. Students and volunteers will share information on what the telescope is showing. 

Image credit: NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA
Mars. Image credit: NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA

Do you want to use your own telescope? “A small scope will show the larger markings, while anything over 200mm starts to reveal more detail,” says Hyde. 

On Oct. 3, the last close conjunction of Mars and the Moon for 2020, the Moon will almost be full, and Mars will be very bright. The York observatory will show images of both that night. The best view will be on Oct. 6 when Mars is at its closest; while it’s a bit further away come Oct. 13, it will still be brighter than usual. 

What features will you see?

  • Areas of light and dark, representing deserts and exposed rock.
  • Albedo features: areas that appear bright or dark due to the amount of light they reflect. The larger and darker an albedo feature, the easier it is to see through a small telescope.
  • The most prominent dark feature is the V-shaped form of Syrtis Major, a low-level shield volcano. When it has rotated into view, the ‘point’ of Syrtis Major points north, appearing to extend quite far toward the northern edge of Mars during the 2020 opposition.
  • West of Aurorae Sinus is the “Eye of Mars,” the central feature being dark Solis Lacus. The immense Vallis Marineris canyon lies northeast of Solis Lacus.
  • The desert expanses of Tharsis and Amazonis lie northwest of the “Eye of Mars.” Here three volcanic peaks named (north-to-south) Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons define the southwest edge of the “Tharsis quadrangle.”
  • Arranged in a line, they look northwest over the vast volcano Olympus Mons. Bright orographic clouds may form when the Martian atmosphere is forced upward over these volcanoes.
  • Between the southern boundary of Syrtis Major and the southern polar cap lies the Hellas Basin. This 2,300-km diameter basin is one of the largest impact craters in the Solar System. Hellas can sometimes appear bright due to clouds that form in the basin.

In addition, there will be a Mars-themed Online Public Viewing on Oct. 12 and a Mars-themed YouTube live TeleTube on Oct. 14. For details, visit the observatory website (https://observatory.info.yorku.ca/).