Driftless Dark Skies: Mars Returns

July 4th, 2018 by John Heasley

Mars will be awesome in the dark skies of the Driftless this month. It has not been this bright since the Great Perihelic Opposition of August 2003 and won’t be this bright again until September 2035.  Mars takes almost two years to orbit the Sun, so Earth “laps” it every 25-27 months when the distance between the two worlds narrows. Every day in July, Spaceship Earth brings us almost 200,000 miles closer to Mars. Because Mars’ orbit is elliptical, it is especially close to Earth every 15-17 years.

Image from APOD

You can greet Mars at the start of the month. On the night of June 30/July 1, Mars rises with the Waning Gibbous Moon around 10:40pm and they travel together across the southern sky. Mars is twice the diameter of the Moon but appears much smaller because it is much further away. The brightest objects in the night sky this month are all planets. Venus is the brightest and is setting in the west as Mars is rising in the southeast.  Jupiter is about as bright as Mars and can be seen in the southwest after sunset. Saturn is dimmer and creamier and can be seen in the south in the evenings.

Mars is fun to enjoy with our unaided eyes, but binoculars really bring out the color. It gets called The Red Planet in all those great science fiction movies, but what color does it look like to you? Break out you pantones or swatches or spices. Cinnamon? Turmeric? Ginger? Paprika? Coriander? Fans of Dune may be happy to know that Frank Herbert was thinking of setting his story on Mars before he moved it to the desert spice world of Arrakis. If you have a small telescope, you won’t see spice worms, but you will be able to see lighter areas covered by pale dust and darker areas where the basalt is exposed. Mars’ southern polar gap will be prominent this month. You can join Opportunity and Curiosity in roving the planet.

Earth passes between the Sun and Mars the night of July 26/27. Mars is rising earlier now at 8:55 and syzygy occurs at 12:07am. Mars travels across the southern sky below and to the left of the Full Moon.  Our friends in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia will be wowed by a total by a total lunar eclipse as the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth and darkens to a rusty color like Mars. Sadly this eclipse will not be visible in North America. Mars leads the Full Moon across the sky the following night of July 27/28. The finale is the night of July 30/31 when Mars and Earth are at their closest at 2:07am. Mars will be glowing all night long, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise. Human have long been intrigued by the intense color of Mars, its wandering movement through the constellations, and its almost hundredfold change in brightness.  Be awed by Mars this month!

Iowa County Astronomers meets on July 6 in Dodgeville. There’s an indoor presentation at QLF Agronomy Research starting at 7:30pm and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. Universe in the Park will be at Governor Dodge on July 21 and Yellowstone Lake on July 7. UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. Programs begin around sunset. Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and Planetary Stargazing (8-10 pm) on July 28. Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public program (8:30pm) on July 7. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on July 14 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes.

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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