Mars at Opposition on March 3rd

Have you ever tried to find mars on the night sky?  It is never hard because mars is one of the brightest bodies in the sky (and it even has a reddish hue to set it apart),  but in the nights of early march it will be even easier because mars will reach opposition and be at its closest point to earth in 26 months.

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This is not as dramatic an event as a lunar eclipse or a meteor shower, but it is a great chance to look up to the sky and wonder: Mars and our planet are very similar, and mars once also donned a dense atmosphere and had liquid water on its surface. Because of this, mars is the #1 place scientists hope to find evidence for (once) living organisms outside earth.

And did you know that there are a couple of remote controlled rovers on the surface of mars? NASA has already successfully landed 3 rover on mars (click here for live updates on the two latest), and the next one (curiosity) is scheduled to land on mars at August 6th 2012!

So try this tonight: Look up at the sky tonight and image what it would be to drive around on the red planet. That little reddish dot on the sky. To guide your pondering, here is an actual image of the surface of mars taken by the opportunity rover in 2004:

Burns_cliff_nasa

The view of Burns Cliff inside the Endurance Crater on Mars(!). This photo was taken in 2004 by the NASA mars rover “Opportunity”. Image credit: NASA

How big will Mars be?

Mars and earth are in opposition every ±2 years, and the distance between the two planets (and thus the size of mars as seen from the earth) changes with every opposition. For example, During the opposition of 2003 Mars was very close and at 98% of its maximum size. This was a very special opposition, because mars hadn’t been that close in 60.000 years! In 2012 mars will “only” be at 54% of its maximum size.

The “really big” oppositions happen every ±16 years, and the next one will be at July 27th 2018, when mars will be at 95% of its maximum size. Below you can see a size comparison of mars during the opposition of March 3d (middle panel) with the two years before and after. This comparison was made with the awesome solar system simulator of NASA.

mars size comparison 2010 - 2014

The size of mars will be during its closest approach in 2012, relative to its size during the two years before and after. Next to the size, mars itself also looks different because like earth it rotates around its axis, and because its position relative to the earth (above, below) changes. Distances between Mars and Earth are (from left to right, in million km): 120, 353, 101, 353, 116

What do “opposition” and “conjunction” mean?

Opposition and conjunction are terms astronomers use to describe the relative position of tow or more heavenly bodies. In the context of this post, “opposition” means that mars and the sun are exactly opposite each other.

opposition-nasa

Diagram showing a planet at opposition (sun and planet are at opposite sides of the earth) and conjunction (both sun and planet are on the same side). Image credit: NASA.

Opposition and conjunction are terms astronomers use to describe the relative position of tow or more heavenly bodies. In the context of this post, “opposition” means that mars and the sun are exactly opposite each other.

Opposition for mars happens every  26 months, and during opposition mars is as close as it will get to earth. “Close” is only relative, because during the opposition in 2012 mars and earth will still be more than 100 million km apart.

Technically speaking (because of their respective orbital geometry), March 4th and 5th will be even better days for mars-watching, because Mars and earth get even closer two days later in the 5th of march (details).

Viewing tips for Hawaii

During this opposition, the maximum size of mars on the sky will be 14 arcseconds. This is to small to be resolve by the naked eye (to wit, the diameter of the full moon is about 130 times that of mars, and the definition of 20/20 vision is the ability to resolve things that are 4 times larger!), and even binoculars won’t help you a lot.

Luckily, you are on the Big Island!  Telescopes are what you need, and those are in ready supply on the Big Island! The Mauna Kea visitor center organizes a stargazing program every night of the year between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., and they have telescopes that you can use under supervision of a professional astronomer! How does going to the summit of Mauna Kea to see the sunset, with some great stargazing afterwards sound?! For more information have a look at stargazing on Mauna Kea. For more information have a look at our stargazing on Hawaii guide.

Find mars on the Hawaiian sky

Mars is one of the brightest points on the sky, and often has a reddish hue. During the opposition it will appear close to the constellation Leo. As with any planet in opposition (can you tell why?), mars will rise in the east in the early evening, be almost directly overhead around midnight, and set below the western horizon early the following day.

To make it easier for you to find mars, we show what the night sky above Hawaii will look like at 8 p.m. on march 3rd, midnight, and 4 a.m. the following day.

skymap mars opposition march 3 2012 hawaii

Sky map to find mars in the Hawaiian sky. This is what the sky above the Big Island looks like at 8 p.m. on March 3rd

skymap mars opposition march 3 2012 hawaii

Sky map to find mars in the Hawaiian sky. This is what the sky above the Big Island looks like at midnight between March 3rd and 4th. Mars is almost directly overhead.

skymap mars opposition march 3 2012 hawaii

Sky map to find mars in the Hawaiian sky. This is what the sky above the Big Island looks like at 4 a.m. March 4th. Mars is visible low on the western sky.

 

As a closing thought, it is perhaps fitting that this happens in march, because the month “march” and the planet “mars” are both named after the roman god of war: Mars.

 

2 thoughts on “Mars at Opposition on March 3rd

  1. Pingback: Mars conjunction | Babystepsandbe

  2. Pingback: Hawaii 2012 Online Astronomy Calendar

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