Welcome! Login | Register

Subscribe Now: Free Daily EBlast


Skywatching: Mars Madness

Saturday, May 03, 2014


I couldn’t resist using that title for this column. While stargazers do not have the fan base like the teams in the NCAA Basketball Championship, we do get excited when we can share views of a world that has stimulated mankind’s imagination for well over a century. I’m referring to our second closest planetary neighbor, Mars. In recent months the Earth had been catching up to Mars, since the Earth orbits the Sun on the inside track (one year) in less time than Mars does (1.88 years). We effectively lapped Mars on April 14 when these two worlds were at their closest for this apparition, which occurs about every 26 months. On that date at 8:54am EDT, one could look across the 57,406,300 miles of space to observe this dry and barren world almost half the size of the Earth.

For this article I am not going to recount the history of Mars observations or spacecraft explorations other than to say the initial accounts of possible “canals” on Mars at the end of the 19th century captured our imagination and most assuredly hastened our spacecraft exploration of this desolate world. If you would like some historical background, visit Skyscrapers website and look for an article titled “Mars History Highlights 2012.”

Unfortunately not all Mars close encounters are favorable ones. That fact is due to the eccentricity of Mars’ elliptical orbit and its distance from the Sun. For example, during the previous close encounter on March 5, 2012, Mars and the Earth were a distant 62,652,214 miles from each other. So on April 14 we were about five million miles closer. However, back on August 27, 2003, Earth and Mars were a mere 34,646,418 miles apart, their closest distance for nearly 60,000 years.

You’ll want to begin observing Mars as soon as possible, as the distance between our two worlds will be increasing every day as the Earth pulls away. If you visit one of the local observatories, the volunteers at these facilities will know where to find Mars in the sky. And they will be happy to point it out so you will be able to locate it yourself if you have your own telescope. Should you be unable to take advantage of their guidance, the accompanying star map along with the following brief directions will help you.

On May 1 at 9:00pm EDT the skies will be dark enough to see Mars residing among the rather indistinct constellation of Virgo. While Virgo’s brightest star Spica (15th brightest in the sky) can be a nice beacon, Mars will be much closer to Porrina which will be just above it. Mars will be the very distinct pumpkin orange colored object shining at about magnitude –1, 40 degrees above the southeast horizon. Do not confuse it with Bootes’ bright orange giant star Arcturus to the left and also about 40 degrees above the eastern horizon. (Several Skyscrapers members have done so in the past, including yours truly!)

Once you focus in on Mars with a telescope, the planet will appear as a rust-colored beach ball. As you carefully scan this alien world, you should begin to notice several dark features on the Martian surface. These features are the underlying rock exposed by the shifting sands during intense dust storms. The relatively small image will make it somewhat of a challenge to identify much detail, and the dark surface features may be fleeting. Despite this handicap, a keen-eyed observer should be able to see a dark area like Syrtis Major or a bright one like Hellas Basin. An online utility called Mars Profiler, provided by Sky and Telescope magazine, will help you to identify specific surface features.

Image of Mars by Dave Huestis using Project Slooh telescope in the Canary Islands on February 24, 2012

While you won’t see any hint of alleged canals, you can still ponder the excitement originally created by such assertions that intelligent Martians were busy irrigating their desert world. For some observers it might be a challenge to observe much detail with a small telescope, but don’t let that situation deter you from gazing at this planet that has stimulated our collective imagination for over a century. And of course the local observatories will be able to share even more Martian detail when steady seeing allows them to “crank up” the magnification on their larger instruments.

The next detail that will hopefully catch your eye will be the North Polar Cap (NPC). It’s a bright white feature that can easily be seen because Mars’ north pole is currently tilted about 21 degrees towards the Earth. It is mid-summer in Mars’ northern hemisphere, so the NPC has had some time to melt. Wait for steady seeing conditions to observe as much detail as possible. The NPC will continue to shrink as the Martian summer progresses, while the Earth/Mars distance increases and the image size decreases.

Keep in mind that Mars rotates once in 24 hours and 38 minutes. That means if you observe a feature at a specific location at a specific time on a given night, you’ll have to wait an additional 38 minutes each successive night for it to be at the same spot, since the Earth rotates once every 24 hours.

Though Mars is noted for producing global dust storms that can enshroud the planet, these storms are usually active when Mars is at perihelion (closest to Sun). The next Mars’ perihelion is not until December, so major dust storms are unlikely during the next few months.

In conclusion, be patient during your observations and note as much detail as your telescope and local weather conditions allow. Take a knowledgeable glimpse of an alien world that inspired generations of astronomers and science fiction writers alike to ponder the existence of Martian life-forms. And don’t forget to take advantage of the marvelous views afforded by the local observatories.

While there are no (intelligent) Martians, after decades of careful observations of the red planet, we Earthlings have sent an armada of spacecraft to invade “their” world! And perhaps one day in the not too distant future, your children or grandchildren may set foot upon this exciting landscape.

If you don’t own your own telescope or the view of Mars through the one you do own is too small to see much detail, plan on visiting Seagrave Observatory on Peeptoad Road in North Scituate on any clear Saturday night. Or visit Ladd Observatory located on Hope Street on Providence’s East Side on any clear Tuesday night. Also consider visiting Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown, which is open every clear Friday night. Visit the respective websites for observing schedules.

Keep your eyes to the skies.

David A. Huestis


Related Slideshow: 10 Great Activities for $20 or Less

Prev Next

Gallery Night

Introduce yourself to the Providence art scene by exploring Providence’s Gallery Night. Every third Thursday of the month from March to November, galleries in Providence open their doors so you can enjoy everything from contemporary art to one-of-a-kind pieces. Guided tours start at One Regency Plaza at 5:20 and leave every 20 minutes. The best part? The bus tours are free. For more information, click here.

Gallery Night: One Regency Plaza, Providence, RI, 02903

Prev Next

Weirdgirl Creations Pottery Studio

Feeling artsy? Get your creative juices flowing at Weirdgirl Pottery studio. There is no need for an appointment, just stop in and start painting. The prices of the ceramics start at $8 and there is no sitting fee or hourly fee. For more information, click here

Weirdgirl Creations Pottery Studio: 33 Kent Street, Suite B, Barrington, RI, 02806

Prev Next

Sky Zone

Sky Zone is an indoor trampoline park that allows you to have hours of fun while exercising in a unique way. The trampolines reach from one edge of the floor to the other and angled trampolines allow you to literally bounce off walls. Prices range from $9 for a thirty minute jump pass to $20 for 120 minutes. For more information, click here

Sky Zone: 70 Pawtucket Ave, East Providence, RI, 02916

Prev Next

Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel

If you are looking to enjoy live music but do not want to dip into your savings account for concert tickets, check out all of the different shows that Lupo’s has to offer. The shows at Lupo’s are constantly changing and there are plenty of tickets for $20 when bought in advance. For a list of upcoming events, click here

Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel: 79-81 Washington Street, Providence, RI, 02903 

Prev Next


If you think you can’t eat on Federal Hill for less than $20…you are wrong. Cassarino’s serves some of the most delicious Italian food in all of Providence and now you can enjoy a great meal for less when you order off of Cassarino’s lunch menu. Lunch is served Monday- Friday from 11:30am until 3:00pm. Don’t miss the chance to get chicken parmesan for $8.85 or filet mignon for $16.95. For more information, click here

Cassarino’s: 177 Atwells Avenue, Providence, RI, 02903

Prev Next

Avon Cinema

Located on Providence’s Thayer Street, the Avon Cinema is known for showing independent and foreign films. Tickets are only $10.50 or $8.50 for matinee shows. Check out their website to see what movies are playing and get ready to have a unique movie experience. For more information visit, click here

Avon Cinema: 260 Thayer Street, Providence, RI, 02906

Prev Next

The Providence Athenaeum

The Providence Athenaeum is an independent library located on Providence’s Benefit Street. This library, founded in 1836, has welcomed many illustrious visitors throughout the years including Edgar Allen Poe. The library is open to the public and many of their programs are free. Check out their website for upcoming programs.

The Providence Athenaeum: 251 Benefit Street, Providence, RI, 02903

Prev Next

Roger Williams Park Botanical Center

The Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park is home to the largest indoor display gardens in New England. The Botanical Center includes two greenhouses with over 150 different species of plants. The Center is open Tuesday- Sunday from 11:00am -4:00pm and admission is only $3 for adults and $1 for children. For more information, click here.  

Roger Williams Park Botanical Center: 1000 Elmwood Avenue, Providence, RI, 02905

Prev Next

Waterfire Providence

Though Waterfire doesn’t start this season until the end of May, Waterfire is one of Providence’s most popular and cultural events. It is also free. So when the weather gets warmer make sure you see the bonfires glowing at Waterplace Park. For more information, click here.

Waterfire Providence: 100 Canal Walk, Waterplace Park, Providence, RI, 02903

Prev Next

Swan Boats

Not only are the swan boats a Boston tradition, but a ride is only $3 for adults and $1.50 for children (ages 2-15) making the boats a perfect activity for those on a budget. Rides take place on the waters of the Boston Public Garden and mark the beginning of spring. Rides are available seven days a week weather permitting. For more information, click here.

Swan Boats: 4 Charles Street, Boston, MA, 02116


Enjoy this post? Share it with others.



Stay Connected — Free
Daily Email