The Red Planet Hasn’t Looked This Good in Years

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
April 10 2014 7:45 AM

Mars at Its Best Right Now

Mars
Mars glows like a red demon's eye in the sky right now.

Photo by Christian Fröschlin, from the video

Due to the orbital dance of the planets, Mars is currently at its best showing of the year, as close to Earth as it gets, and shining brightly all night long.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

To see it, go outside. If it’s after sunset and the sky is dark, face southeast. Look up. There it is. It’s one of the brightest objects in the sky and shines with an orange-y glow.

Advertisement

The technical term for Mars’ place in the sky right now is opposition because it is opposite (literally, 180° around the sky) from the Sun. The Sun sets in the west, so after sunset look east. At midnight, when the Sun is lowest, Mars is at its highest. And closer to dawn as the Sun begins to rise in the east Mars will be sinking in the west.

orbits of Mars and Earth
The orbits of the inner planets as of April 9, 2014. Earth (blue) and Mars (red) are indicated, and they form a straight line with the Sun.

Diagram by Heavens-Above

This also means the Red Planet is as close to our own blue-green one as it gets for a couple of years, so it’s the best time to observe it. Mars is only half the size of the Earth, and more than 90 million kilometers (55 million miles) away, so it’s still rather small through a telescope. Despite that, astrophotographer Christian Fröschlin used his Celestron 8” telescope to observe Mars on April 9, 2014, creating enough images to string together into this amazing video:

Coooool. You can actually see the planet rotate! Mars spins once on its axis in a very Earth-like time of about 24.5 hours (what planetary scientists call a sol to distinguish it from an Earth day), so you’re seeing roughly 1/8th of a sol here. It’s currently summer in the Martian northern hemisphere, so that half of the planet is tipped toward the Sun; that means you’re seeing the north polar ice cap in the video. You can see a bunch more recent images taken of Mars over at Universe Today.

Mars isn’t far from the somewhat fainter orange giant star Arcturus in the sky, and it’s fun to compare them. Also, on Sunday and Monday the full Moon will be only a few degrees away, so that’ll make a good photo op.

If you have clear skies, get outside and look up! The Universe awaits.

Correction, April 10, 2014: Due to a typo I originally listed the distance to Mars as 45 million miles. It is actually 55 million.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 22 2014 2:27 PM Facebook Made $595 Million in the U.K. Last Year. It Paid $0 in Taxes
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 22 2014 1:01 PM The Surprisingly Xenophobic Origins of Wonder Bread
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.