A Close Pass With Mars
- Wednesday, August 13, 2003
And so, Mars will shine brighter in August 2003 than it has ever shown before. And it will appear larger in a telescope than it has ever appeared before. Of all the great astronomers of history - Ptolemy, Kopernik, Tycho, Kepler, Galileo - none of them ever saw Mars as we will be able to see it this month. And Mars will never again present itself like this in the lifetimes of even our youngest children. So Mars truly is a special sight this month, and one your family needs to get out and see.
So Just How Special Is It?
Having said all that, the fact is, Mars is only at its closest by a small percentage over other close oppositions. In general, Mars is always brighter during oppositions in the months on either side of August. And conversely, Mars is always fainter during oppositions on either side of January, when Mars is near "aphelion," its farthest distance from the Sun.
In August 2003, Mars will have a least distance of 0.37272 astronomical units, which is about 34.6 million miles from Earth. But Mars last had an August opposition on August 12, 1971. At that time, the least distance was 0.37569 AU, and Mars was 276,000 miles more distant than this year. This is only a little more than the distance from the Earth to the Moon, a gnat's whisker in astronomical terms.
This August, Mars will look its largest through a telescope. Through a scope, Mars will have an apparent diameter of 25.11 arcseconds, a new record. But this is only 0.8% larger than the 24.91 arcsecond size observed in August 1971. So technically this is the closest opposition ever. But if you are as unimpressed by negligible percentages as I am, we can at least agree that this is the best opposition of Mars in a generation.
Also, we won't do too badly with the Mars opposition of July 31, 2018, in which it will more distant than 1971 (and thus a little smaller and less bright). But the next best occurrence will be on August 15, 2050, which our kids might enjoy but we parents can expect to miss!
This current opposition will finally be surpassed on August 29, 2287, when Mars will appear to be 25.14 arcseconds in apparent size, a whopping 0.1% bigger than this year. At this time, Mars will be a trivial 43,710 miles closer to the Earth than it will be this month. I've been driving my 1988 Ford Crown Victory since it was new and it had about that many miles on it in 1990!
Seeing Mars in August 2003
On any clear night this month, Mars can be seen rising in the southeast a couple hours after sunset. You can't miss Mars, since it is a fiery copper-colored "star," greatly outshining any other star currently in the evening sky. Our Southern Hemisphere readers should see Mars at a reasonable evening hour.
But since it is summer for our Northern Hemisphere readers, the sun sets late, and Mars won't be very high in the sky until about midnight. This will be quite a bit after the bedtimes of our younger scholars. However, as Mars approaches opposition, it will rise earlier and earlier over the course of the month, and the northern days will grow shorter.
Mars and the Earth will actually have their closest approach on Wednesday, August 27. Since the Earth's orbit is also a bit lopsided, the two bodies are technically at their closest the day before opposition. But on Thursday, August 28, Mars will finally be at opposition. In the weeks and months thereafter, Mars will be visible in the evening sky after sunset. So we'll be spending some time with Mars in coming months, and we'll tell you about upcoming conjunctions of the Moon with Mars.
Telescope Viewings of Mars
The "disc" of the planet Mars will only be visible under the magnification of a telescope. With an apparent angular size of 25.11 arcseconds, Mars will have a visible diameter of only 1% that of the full Moon. To put this in perspective, look at a dime with the words "In God We Trust." If you took a dime and held it arm's length, ten Mars would fit side-by-side across the "O" in "God!"
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