After the sun, moon and Venus, the solar system giant Jupiter is usually the fourth-brightest object in the night sky. But for the last few weeks, Mars has been overtaking Jupiter as the next-most-dazzling planet as it glides closer to Earth night by night.
“The last time Mars was so bright in the sky was in 2003, the closest it had been in 60,000 years,” said Steward Observatory astronomer Thomas Fleming. “This time, it’s not as close, but almost” — a mere 35.8 million miles away.
Every 26 months, Mars is at opposition, meaning it’s on the exact opposite side of the sky from the sun. This celestial alignment happened Friday. The red planet rose as the sun set and dipped below the horizon with the sunrise. Mars will appear brightest from July 27 through 30.
But because of the planet’s slightly egg-shaped orbit, Earth continued to march closer to Mars after Friday, Fleming said. We will be closest on Tuesday, July 31.
That night, Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium on the University of Arizona campus will celebrate the Mars close approach with an evening of events dubbed “Mars Magnified.”
The night includes a special presentation, planetarium shows and telescope viewing for the whole family.
Starting at 8 p.m., planetary scientist Stephen Kortenkamp will give a special presentation called “Mars Madness” in the Eos Planetarium Theater in Flandrau. Kortenkamp will review the history of human exploration of our planetary neighbor, explain why Mars is so close to Earth and provide an overview of other planets visible in the night sky this time of year.
Following Kortenkamp’s presentation, there will be planetarium shows every hour on the hour. The last show starts at midnight.
Starting at 9 p.m., the Steward Observatory’s historic Raymond E. White 12-inch telescope — the largest on campus — and Flandrau’s 16-inch Cassegrain telescope will be trained on Mars, the fourth planet from the sun.
Both telescopes will be open to the public until 2 a.m. at no cost. Additionally, telescopes manned by volunteers from the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Steward Observatory will be available on the UA Mall in front of Flandrau, 601 E. University Blvd.
All telescope viewing is weather-permitting.
If it is too cloudy for telescopes at about 5 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, Fleming will not ask volunteers to come out with their telescopes. However, he will monitor the weather throughout the night. If the clouds break at any time, he will open the Steward Observatory telescope, 933 N. Cherry Ave., just west of Flandrau. Despite any weather, planetarium shows will continue.
A regional dust storm began in late May on Mars. By mid-June, it had reached global status, said Alfred McEwen, director of the Planetary Image Research Laboratory at the UA.
“The dust storm peaked two weeks ago and is gradually clearing,” he said. “It’ll still be noticeably dustier for a least another month.”
With larger telescopes, it could be possible to see the white south polar cap and a pattern of four dark spots around the equator, which are actually four shield volcanoes. Among them is Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system.