Time to take a look at Mars

Orbit Earth/Mars (Photo courtesy of NASA) Mars, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope on May 12, 2016, 50 million miles from earth. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Opportunity to view detail of the planet

OREGON — In the coming days, the view of Mars in the night sky will be better than will be seen until 2035, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Jim Todd alerted sky watchers via email notification on Tuesday. While the red planet was at its closest distance to earth, 38.5 million miles, on Tuesday morning, Mars will reach opposition on Oct. 13.

“During opposition, Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth. From our perspective on our spinning world, Mars rises in the east just as the sun sets in the west. Then, after staying up in the sky the entire night, Mars sets in the west just as the sun rises in the east,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration explains at mars.nasa.gov.

“At opposition, Mars will be farther from Earth than it was on Oct. 6, at 38.57 million miles, but it will still be an impressive sight,” Todd wrote. “Observers with backyard telescopes can expect to see Mars with more detail than it will exhibit for 15 years, especially after midnight, when the planet will be due south,” he related.  “Mars will be brighter than nearby Jupiter.”

After opposition, Mars will diminish in brightness but remain impressive for observing for the rest of 2020, Todd explained. Mars will reach solar conjunction, when earth and mars are obscured from each other by the sun, on Oct. 8, 2021.

Also known as the red planet, Mars is named for the Roman god of war. The fourth planet from the sun has long been associated with warfare and pestilence, the Britannica encyclopedia online details. “As long as 3,000 years ago, Babylonian astronomer-astrologers called the planet Nergal for their god of death and pestilence.”

According to NASA, the planet’s two moons, Phobos (meaning fear) and Deimos (terror), discovered in 1877, appear to have surface material similar to asteroids in the outer asteroid belt, leading most scientists to believe they are captured asteroids.

Much of what is known about the planet is presented by NASA. The space agency details a timeline of Mars exploration that began with Mariner 3 and 4 in 1964. Mariner 3 was lost during launch. Mariner 4 collected the first close-up photographs of the craters on Mars. Mariner 6, 7, 8 and 9 continued to gather information in flybys.

NASA’s Viking project in the 1970s was the first U.S. mission to safely land a spacecraft on Mars. American exploration of Mars resumed in the 1990s with Mars Observer, an orbiter, which lost communication before insertion into orbit. Pathfinder (a rover) and Mars Global Surveyor were both successful, providing images, chemical analyses of rocks and soil, as well as information about weather. The late ’90s saw Mars Polar Lander, Mars Climate Orbiter and Deep Space 2 lost on arrival.

Success resumed with the Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, rovers that provided high resolution images of the Martian terrain. Exploration continued with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the lander, and Phoenix Scout.

The rover Curiosity found evidence of past habitable environments on Mars in 2011. The MAVEN is currently collecting data in orbit and the Curiosity continues to move on the surface of Mars.

The voyage of the rover Perseverance, currently cruising to Mars at 64,403 miles per hour, is being tracked in real time. As of press time, Perseverance was nearly 118,000 miles from earth, expected to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021.

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