Mars mania

On July 27 this year, Mars will again be very close to Earth. Photo: Getty Images
On July 27 this year, Mars will again be very close to Earth. Photo: Getty Images

While not yet at its closest, Mars is already becoming a bright object in the late-evening sky, Ian Griffin writes.

Ian Griffin
Ian Griffin
Back in 2003, I was part of a team using the Hubble telescope to take images of Mars when it was closer to Earth than it had been in 60,000 years.

In the 24 hours after we posted pictures online, they were seen by more than 20 million people, becoming some of the most downloaded Hubble images of all time!

On July 27 this year, Mars will again be very close to Earth, during what is called a perihelic opposition (Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth when the red planet is itself at its closest point to the sun).

Mars will be a tad further away than it was in 2003, but astronomers are getting excited and firing up their telescopes to practise taking pictures of Mars in the run-up to July's close approach.

While not yet at its closest, Mars is already becoming a bright object in the late-evening sky. The planet rises just after 8.30pm, and by 11pm it will be visible as an extraordinarily bright red "star'' some 25 degrees above the eastern horizon.

As this week's chart shows, Mars is moving through the rather indistinct constellation Capricornus, one of the constellations of the zodiac.

Capricornus is Latin for "horned goat'', "goat horn'' or "having horns like a goat's'' and it is commonly represented in the form of a sea-goat: a mythical creature that is half goat, half fish.

I have been using my own telescope to study the planet, and as the picture which accompanies this article shows, even a small telescope shows beautiful detail like the planet's polar cap.

During the period Mars is closest to Earth, I will be a member of a joint observing team from the University of Canterbury and the Otago Museum which will be using one of the best telescopes at the Mount John Observatory to share live images of Mars over the internet.

While we probably won't be able to match the images taken by Hubble, with Mars high overhead at midnight in July as seen from New Zealand, the views should be spectacular. I can't wait!

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