Driftless Dark Skies: Roaming Mars

April 3rd, 2018 by John Heasley

Mars has long sparked my imagination. I think it was that map of the Solar System I had as a kid showing canals and vegetation. Only when I learned Roman numerals did I discover that the map was out of date. But I was left with a favorite planet.

Now Mars is returning. Every 26 months, the orbits of Mars and Earth bring them close to one another. On July 31, Mars will be at its closest since August 2003 and until October 2035. This summer will be an excellent time for Marsgazing. It’s up all night rising as the sky darkens in the evening. It will be easy to find since it will be brighter than any star and any planet except for Venus. Mars is the only planet whose surface we can view with a small telescope. When the skies are steady, you can catch sight of surface features including the icy polar caps. The dark skies of the Driftless Area should give us a spectacular view.

You can start preparing for the return of Mars this spring. On April 1, Mars rises in the east around 1:30am. In the predawn sky, it’s fairly high in the south. You’ll see two bright stars close together above the “teapot” of Sagittarius. The lower, ruddier, and slightly brighter one is Mars.  The higher, creamier, and slightly dimmer one is Saturn. Watch the next two nights as they draw closer and Mars passes by Saturn. They will be at their closest on April 2.  On April 7, the Waning Crescent Moon joins the two. By the end of April, Mars is rising an hour earlier and has moved far from Saturn. As spring becomes summer, Mars will rise earlier and earlier and grow in brightness.

Mars is the only planet inhabited entirely by robots. Odyssey, MRO, MAVEN, MOM, Mars Express, and ExoMars are orbiting the planet. Opportunity and Curiosity are roving the surface. And InSight is launching next month and is scheduled to land in November. You can learn more about Mars at the April 13 meeting of Iowa County Astronomers at Dodgeville Public Library 7 pm with guest speaker Dr. Rebecca Williams. She is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and part of the golden age of Mars exploration. You’ll hear from a science team member on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity about the rover’s payload and results since landing in Gale crater on August 5, 2012 and learn how Dr. Williams formulates Curiosity’s daily activities from her home and office in Waunakee. Explore Martian vistas and hear about where humans may someday land on the Red Planet. Event is free and open to the public.

On Saturday, April 28 you can stargaze at Kickapoo Valley Reserve as part of their Spring Fling celebration. KVR astroeducators will have a telescope and binoculars set up for you to enjoy views of the almost Full Moon as well as Venus and other highlights of the spring sky. You can also join Starsplitters of Wyalusing for their meeting and stargazing on Thursday, April 12 starting at 6:30.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

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