Encounter With the Red Planet

By Dennis Mammana

July 19, 2018 4 min read

Week of July 22-28, 2018

While in college during the early 1970s, I worked one summer as a counselor in a Pennsylvania children's home. One of my favorite residents there was a rather burly streetwise kid named Rufus. Rufus taught me to play pool, and I taught him about space.

I have no idea how our discussion began, but one afternoon we were talking about the sky, and I mentioned that he could see Mars later that evening. His response really shocked me. "Get out!" he reacted. "You can't see Mars. It's another planet!"

That was the first time I realized just how abstract astronomy must seem to some folks, and how removed they are from the universe.

I can't remember if Rufus ever went out to gaze toward Mars that night, but if you've never seen the Red Planet before, this is a great time to do so.

Now glowing brilliantly, Mars appears against the faint stars of the constellation Capricornus, the she-goat, which of course lie trillions of miles farther than the planet and only appear along the same line of sight.

Mars reaches its official opposition, lying directly opposite from the sun in our sky, on the night of July 26-27. Head outdoors shortly after dark and you'll see what I mean. Stand with your back to the sunset point and there, right in front of you, will glow the brilliant orange light of Mars.

You'll have a hard time missing it since it outshines every star in that area. In fact, it's now the brightest object in the night sky — except for Venus (low in the west just after sunset) and the moon (which passes near Mars on July 26 and 27)!

When Mars (or any celestial object) appears low in the sky, its light must pass through a much thicker column of air, moisture and dust than when overhead. This extra material attenuates the object's light and makes it appear fainter. But don't give up too early, for those who keep an eye on Mars over the next hour or two will see it become dazzlingly bright as it ascends the sky.

Our official nearest approach to Mars this year comes on the last night of July, when our two worlds lie a mere 35.8 million miles from each other. This is as close as we've been since 2003 and closer than we'll be until the year 2035.

Unfortunately, as with so many things in life, there is good news and bad news to report. The good news is that if you own a small telescope or can visit your local planetarium or amateur astronomy club, you'll get quite a close-up view of the Red Planet. The bad news is that a global dust storm has kicked up on Mars and blotted out all the subtle details that we might otherwise see. How long this will continue is anyone's guess, but you can learn more about it here: skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/is-the-mars-opposition-already-over/.

Whether or not you have a telescope, be sure not to miss the Red Planet at its nearest and brightest.

And Rufus, wherever you are, I hope you're out there keeping watch!

 Encounter the Red Planet after dark this week.
Encounter the Red Planet after dark this week.

Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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