Three years after the turn of the century, many folks who normally wouldn’t pay much attention to celestial events wanted to try their luck at sighting Mars. “Helpful” emails forwarded from friends alerted them that this would be the chance of a lifetime, one they would tell their great-grandchildren about many years hence. Mars was to approach Earth so closely that it was to appear as big as the full moon. Many novice skywatchers came away puzzled at best, disappointed at worst because they failed to read the fine print, “as seen through a small telescope.” (Mars never appears bigger than an orange viewed from half a mile.)
In six months, Mars again will be in our early evening sky and the media will surely report that it will appear extraordinarily “big” and bright. (The reason for their use of “big” is not really understood.) No, it won’t shine as brightly as in August of 2003, but it will be almost as bright. What the media likely won’t report is that Mars will be a sky attraction for most of 2018, not just in July and August.
If 2017 could be billed as the “Year of the Total Solar Eclipse,” 2018 could be thought of as the “Year of Mars.” Actually, that year begins now.
Over the next few mornings and extending into next week, ruddy Mars first will be approaching, then passing the wide double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra in our early morning sky. Then, a few days later it will catch and pass bright Jupiter. Look to the southeast at 6:15 a.m. for the planetary pair and the moderately bright star climbing higher above the horizon. Through well focused binoculars, the double star nature of Zuben will be easy to discern.
When Jupiter and Mars are separated by their narrowest gap on January 6, the bright glare of Jupiter might cause their lights to blend together. Again, bring out binoculars to separate the pair. Five mornings later, the scene will be made more enchanting by the thin crescent moon, seemingly full with Earthshine, sliding above Mars and Jupiter.
As the weeks pass, Mars grows brighter because our planet is slowly catching up to it in their respective orbits around the sun. Tomorrow morning our distance from the Red Planet will be 181 million miles, nearly twice the distance to the sun. By the time it passes the bright red star Antares in mid February, that distance will have decreased to 145 million miles and its brightness will have grown to match that of the star.
When Mars’ brightness surpasses that of Jupiter on July 6, the Earth-Mars distance will have dropped another 95 million miles to 50 million miles. Finally, Mars’ closest approach to our world occurs on July 28 when their separation reaches a fifteen year minimum of 35 million miles. It won’t be this close or this bright again until early September 2035. (Remember, Mars won’t appear any larger than an orange viewed at half a mile.)
For the remainder of the year, it slowly decreases its brightness as Earth pulls away from it. On December 6, bright Mars passes very faint Neptune in the constellation Aquarius. (Binoculars will be needed to see this.) Mars will be 98 million miles from Earth (and us), while Neptune lies twenty eight times farther.
As 2018 ends, the Red Planet still will show a brightness matching that of another red object, the bright red star Betelgeuse in Orion.
While it may not be “big” at all during 2018, Mars will certainly be bright. Get to know it during the coming year and it just might become your favorite planet.