Mars invades our night skies

Planet Mars is about to get up close and personal with Earth. Astronomer Perry Vlahos tells us where to find it in Victorian skies this winter.

Photos: NASA
June 2018


 

Planet Mars is usually a pretty dull sight and difficult to distinguish from an ordinary star. The reason is it’s small and far away – half the size of Earth (see relative sizes in image below), and on average about 225 million kilometres from us. It can be as distant as 401 million kilometres.

However, every couple of years it gets up close and personal, and every 15 years it gets extra close. That’s what’s happening in 2018. It will get to a distance of only 57.6 million kilometres and brighten considerably. From July through until the end of September will be its moment in the sun.

The relative sizes of Earth and Mars. Photo: NASA

No, wait a minute... in the dark, its moment in the dark!

In fact, for a time during this period it will be the fourth-brightest thing in our sky after the sun, moon and Venus.

It will not be this close and bright again until 2033, and you’ll be all grown up by then.

But how to find it and be sure it’s Mars?

Don’t panic, I’m not going to use a star chart that’s difficult to understand. No need. Mars will be so bright it will come looking for you. Well, not you personally, but your retina. It will stand out remarkably easily as the brightest ‘star-like’ object and have a distinctly orange hue. It is known, after all, as the ‘red planet’, due to the rusty colour of its soil.

Trust me, you’ll have no trouble finding it during those months, but if you want a little more info, then look toward the eastern sky soon after sunset. It will be low to the horizon in the early evening and rise higher as the night wears on.

All you’ll need to spot Mars is your eyes alone, but should you want to get a better look at it, the Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV), will be setting up large portable telescopes for the public to view through. Keep an eye on their website (www.asv.org.au) for locations and times, or follow me on Twitter (@Perryastronomy) for more info and latest news.

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