As the month of October closes and frosty November begins, the window of opportunity for observing Mars begins. This little red planet has captured everyone’s attention and curiosity. Is there life on Mars? and where are the Martians?
The Earth and Mars share many similar traits such as the tilt to the planets’ axis, which means that Mars also has seasons and weather, including dust storms and even the occasional cloud. And a full day on Mars is similar to Earth’s in that it is 24.6 hours long. A year on Mars would take twice as along as a year on earth because it takes Mars 687 days to orbit the Sun.
Viewing the planet Mars is for everyone. Mars can be seen with the unaided eye, binoculars and telescopes both large and small. Prime observing time for Mars is from late November until mid-March 2010, giving us plenty of time to prepare for the best of views.
To the unaided eye, Mars is distinctive because, like all planets, there is no twinkling or pulsing like a star, and hints of the blood-red colour can be glimpsed. Unless this red planet is at prominence, it can be a little tricky to find by eye alone (buy the recent issue of Sky News and check the star chart – quick and simple). This planet is not like Venus and Jupiter, which look more like commercial jets coming in for a landing.
Now, with binoculars, things are definitely looking better. The colour is a deep rich red, and the colour seems even deeper due to the surrounding space in which it resides.
If you own binoculars, you are not going to miss the red planet cruising past the Beehive Star Cluster on Friday, Oct. 30 and Saturday, Oct. 31. They will clear the southeastern horizon together around 2 p.m. and by morning will be found high in the southern night sky.
This is a weekend surprise for everyone as Mars sails on by an open star cluster. The Beehive Star Cluster is found in the constellation of Cancer and is bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. This is not so much a massive star cluster to the eye as it only consists of 20 or so stars, but they are bright and, even in a pair of humble binoculars, they are easily seen.
Having the red planet sail on by this open star cluster also makes for an excellent photo opportunity for anyone with literally any kind of camera. The difference in colour between the blue-white stars of the star cluster and the ruddy deep-red of Mars should make an interesting picture indeed.
The best instrument for viewing this event will be a wide-field refractor or a spotting scope. You want a little more power than binoculars can offer so that you can see a definite circular shape to the planet Mars.
You want less power than a medium to large telescope so that you can still see most if not the entire star cluster. Telescopes like these tend to have a narrow field of view. The best view will be when you are able to see Mars as a round reddish circle and the entire star cluster visible, at the same time, in the same field of view.
Remember, as well, that astrophotography is a very time-consuming hobby. If you spend too much time trying to get that perfect picture, you may not have time to enjoy this Mars and star-cluster pairing in the morning sky. Though photographs can reveal amazing detail, for an event like this, the view at the eyepiece is always preferred as the eye has the ability to detect subtle changes in colour.
As we move in closer for a more detailed view of Mars, the preferred instrument of choice would be a five-inch refractor or an eight-inch or larger reflector.
Don’t forget that Mars is the only planet that will actually let us see surface detail. These details are not always easily seen, like the cloud bands of Jupiter or the phases of Venus. Through the telescope, Mars is only one-quarter the apparent size of Jupiter.
Details are much more subtle. I was quite surprised, many years ago, when I discovered the value of a cheap $20 coloured filter. They really do help reveal hidden detail.
Another reason Mars can be challenging to observe in a telescope is that you have our own Earth’s atmosphere as well as the Martian atmosphere to view through. For example, in 2001, the global dust storms (yes, I said global, totally obscured viewing surface detail for five months) had winds in excess of 400 kilometres per hour and moved so much dust around that it actually changed the actual contours on the surface.
The first and most-noticeable feature is the ice caps. It does not require a large scope to spy them, but it certainly helps. Huge salmon-pink-coloured deserts and mountain ranges are also seen during times of stable atmospheric viewing.
The largest volcano in the solar system resides here: Olympus Mons. Through the telescope, with a blue or green filter, this giant volcano looks like a twisted knot in the shape of a very small cone. This is most impressive as this Martian volcano is 544 kilometres in diameter and almost 27 kilometres high.
If you are more interested in canyons, then the Valles Marineris, well-known as the Mariner Valley, is for you. In appearance, this valley appears as a long, dark patch with small, stubby branches.
Unfortunately, we cannot see into the actual valley. Located at the Martian equator, this canyon runs 4,025 kilometres long up to 120 kilometres wide, and in places up to 6.5 kilometres deep. Once again, those coloured filters drastically help to improve the view.
As you can see, Mars offers plenty of interesting and unique observing and photographic opportunities. Take some time to locate Mars in the morning sky and observe the subtle changes.
As Mars gets closer, more detail will become visible and larger in size. There is no better way to spend the early-morning hours than to be out enjoying those amazing Yukon Night Skies with the god of war.
Clear Skies from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.
James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at email@example.com. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.