The long winter ahead may drag on with cold, snow, and cloudy nights, but high up in the dead of winter’s night a bright ruddy star will rule the sky whenever the clouds part long enough for a decent view. The ruddy star is Mars and it has returned to the evening sky for another opposition on January 29, which means it will be up all night, but due to its highly elliptical orbit, it will be at its closest, largest, and brightest on January 27. On that date Mars will be 61.7 million miles from Earth and 14.11 arcseconds across, glittering at magnitude -1.3.
Mars is interesting to observe because it is the only planet that clearly displays a solid surface. It is a rusty desert world of windswept sand dunes, towering volcanoes, gaping canyons, craters, and two polar ice caps. These polar ice caps are the easiest to see and are composed of frozen water and carbon dioxide. During this opposition both polar ice caps will be equally visible as it will be late spring in Mars’ northern hemisphere, but the northern ice cap may be larger as it is still melting from the long, frigid winter, while the southern ice cap is experiencing late autumn and will have already shrunk from a summer of melting. Several dark and bright features will be visible provided there are no dust storms raging across the planet at the time. The darker, brownish areas are primarily dust-free rock outcrops with the largest and darkest being a wedge called Syrtis Major. Sinus Meridiani (Meridiani Planum) is where the Opportunity Rover landed in January 2004. Solis Lacus is another prominent dark feature that looks like an eye and is often nicknamed the “Eye of Mars”. Hellas is a deep impact basin over 1000 miles across that is filled with very fine, highly reflective dust that can be confused for clouds or the south polar ice cap. Mars demands extreme patience when it comes to observing; several nights of observing will train the eye to focus on detail. Larger telescopes will improve the view along with the use of orange or red filters. The features are usually subtle, but Mars will be very high in the sky near the Leo-Cancer border where air turbulence will be less.
The first row of diagrams above show a complete surface map of Mars with the most prominent features visible as well as the polar ice caps. Three different global views follow with the darkest and most prominent surface features shown. The dates in the third row indicate when these features will be nearly centered on Mars at 10PM EST (11PM EDT). These provide views for a few hours either way or a few days around the given dates. Since Mars rotates on its axis in 24 hours and 37 minutes, these features will shift throughout the night. The rotation rate from Syrtis Major to Sinus Meridiani is six hours, from Sinus Meridiani to Solis Lacus is another six hours. If Solis Lacus is visible, then it will be another twelve hours before Syrtis Major returns to view. The fourth row indicates the change in size and brightness for Mars during this apparition.
The best time to observe Mars is when it is larger than 10 arcseconds across. This will occur from December 1 through March 22, which will provide a reasonable period of time to train the eye enough to make sketches or to take photos or video. The retrograde path of Mars among the stars from December 20 until March 10 can also be observed and plotted. Take note of the changing phases of Mars as it becomes noticeably gibbous by March with only 90% of its disc being lit by the Sun as seen from Earth.
Due to its very elliptical orbit, not all oppositions of Mars are good. This one is almost as poor as it gets with the next one in 2012 only slightly worse, but probably not noticeably so, before growing better in 2014 and 2016. The best opposition ahead will be on July 27, 2018 when it will be 24.3 arcseconds across. Mars is becoming a more familiar world thanks to the highly successful missions since 1997, especially with the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Patience and perseverance at the telescope will pay off with a lifetime of memories of this opposition of the Red Planet.