Every 26 months and an odd number of days, the Earth catches up to Mars slower, allowing us to see more detail on its surface through the eyepiece of a telescope. With a separation of 60 million km on October 6, Mars is big and bright.
Nicknamed the “red” planet, Mars appears more orange than red and is the result of a large amount of rust otherwise known as iron oxide that covers much of the Martian landscape. It now rises in the east after sunset and is visible all night.
Jupiter and Saturn are always seen in the western sky and set at midnight. Mercury is also in the west near the Sun and more difficult to locate. Before the end of the night, the brilliant Venus rises in the east around 4 a.m.
The days of the week were derived from these five wandering planets, along with the Sun and the Moon. As the final months of 2020 progress, Mars will continue to darken as our distance increases. Our next close meeting will take place in December 2022
Since the first successful flyby of NASA’s Mariner 4 in July 1965, dozens of missions have been sent to Mars to uncover its secrets and answer the ultimate question: is there life on Mars?
With the help of orbiters, landers and rovers, more and more discoveries are being made. One of the key ingredients in finding life is water. Every living organism on Earth needs water, and scientists believe Mars had oceans around three billion years ago. As the planet continued to cool from its initial creation, it lost its magnetic field protecting it from deadly solar radiation. The solar winds carried the atmosphere away and the water evaporated.
There have been more recent findings of saltwater trapped in permafrost. The upcoming mission carrying and rover Perseverance and a small helicopter named Ingenuity is currently on its seven-month journey to reach the planet in February 2021.
Known as The Backyard Astronomer, Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, guest speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator, or on his website, www.wondersofastronomy.com.