Driftless Dark Skies: Mars Returns with Awesome Brightness

Mars will be awesome in the dark skies of the River Valley 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.

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 10:40 p.m. and they travel together across the southern sky. Mars is twice the diameter of the moon but appears much smaller because it is much farther 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 your 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 12:07 a.m. 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 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 2:07 a.m. Mars will be glowing all night long, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.

Humans 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!

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies above.