Mars will appear brighter than ever before

As you’ve probably heard, Mars and Earth are about to pass closer than they’ve been in nearly 60,000 years, and Mars will appear larger and brighter than at any time in recorded history. It will be nearest Aug. 27 at 34.6 million miles, but don’t wait until then. It already dominates the night sky, shining far brighter than any star. From now through early October it will be a sight to see, especially through a telescope. As you view the red planet, here are some interesting facts to keep in mind. As the fourth planet out from the Sun (Earth is third), Mars orbits the Sun at an average distance of 142 million miles compared to Earth’s 93 million miles. Mars takes 687 Earth-days to circle the Sun compared to our 365 days. Mars’ diameter of 4,222 miles is half that of Earth’s 7,926 miles and twice that of our Moon’s 2,159 miles. With a mass (weight) one-tenth that of Earth’s, a 150-pound Earthling would weight 56 pounds on Mars. Surface conditions on Mars would not support life as we know it. Its thin atmosphere is mostly of carbon dioxide with just traces of water vapor and oxygen. Mars has no known liquid water although it appears there have been large oceans in the distant past, and there might still be frozen water beneath its surface. With an average surface temperature of -67 degrees (Fahrenheit), Martian temperatures vary widely. Polar winter nights can drop to -207 degrees while summer afternoons can reach 80 degrees. Mars’ topography also varies more than Earth’s. Its lowest natural point (Valleris Marineris) is far deeper than Grand Canyon, and its tallest mountain (Olympus Mons) soars to an incredible 89,000 feet–three times the height of Mt. Everest, and over twice as high as commercial jet airplanes fly. Mars has two tiny, irregularly shaped moons–Phobos and Deimos. Since Mars orbits just inside the asteroid belt, these moons are probably asteroids which drifted near Mars and were “captured” by the planet’s gravity. Next time we’ll talk some specifics about observing Mars. SKY CALENDAR. 5 Tue.: The Moon is at 1st quarter. 7 Thu. evening: A gibbous Moon is just above Scorpius’ bright star, Antares. 11 Mon.: The August full Moon is called Green Corn Moon and Grain Moon. 13 Wed. evening: The Moon is to the lower left of Mars. 18 Mon.: Venus is behind the Sun, called superior conjunction. 19 Tue.: The Moon is at 3rd quarter. 20 Tue. morning: The Moon is between Taurus’s Pleiades star cluster and brightest star, Aldebaran. 22 Fri.: Jupiter is now at superior conjunction with (behind) the Sun. PLANETS. (The Sun, Moon and planets all rise in the east and set in the west.) EVENING: Mercury sets just over an hour after sunset; look for the elusive planet near the western horizon 30-45 minutes after sunset. Sinking into the setting Sun, Jupiter now sets soon after sunset, too near the Sun for satisfactory viewing. Neptune rises as the Sun sets with Uranus coming up an hour later. Mars rises just after 10 p.m. MORNING: Saturn rises 2 hours before the Sun with Venus now too near the Sun for viewing. METEOR SHOWER. The annual Perseid meteor shower occurs the night of Aug. 12/13. Although the Perseids are usually one of the best showers, this year’s nearly full Moon will be in the sky all night washing out all but the brightest meteors. Even so, it might still be worth a look, especially after midnight. Meteors appear in all parts of the sky, so your best bet is to look in directions away from the Moon. Stargazer appears every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or pjderrick@aol.com. See the Stargazer Web site at stargazerpaul.com.

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