Western Slope Skies - Exploring Mars

May 6, 2016

  What’s that brilliant, orange “star” rising in the southeast after twilight ends?  It’s actually not a star, but the planet Mars, which is now nearing Earth for its closest encounter since year 2005.  

On May 30th, Mars will be “only” 47 million miles distant from us.  During May, Mars appears to move against the stars of the constellation Scorpius, just north of the red star Antares, and west of the planet Saturn.  Mars will remain about 12 times brighter than Antares and 9 times brighter than Saturn throughout May and most of June.  Notice that Antares appears to twinkle, whereas the planets Mars and Saturn shine with a steadier light.  

Mars’ northern hemisphere is now tipped toward Earth, and through telescopes it may be possible to get glimpses of the northern polar cap and/or clouds that often cover the red planet’s northern regions. Telescopes can reveal some interesting features on Mars, but most of our knowledge of the red planet has come from space probes. More than 40 probes have been launched toward Mars since the early 1960s, and there are now 5 active probes orbiting the planet and two rovers exploring Mars’ surface. Recent findings have included detection of short-duration brine flows on Mars’ surface, periodic discharges of methane gas, and the discovery of water-bearing clay minerals that formed during a wetter period, probably early in Mars’ history. Space probes have found that most of Mars’ early atmosphere and water have been lost to space. It appears likely that, early in its history, Mars was a lot more Earth-like than it is today.  But could there be microbial life on Mars even now? This cannot be ruled out, and future exploration of the red planet will likely provide an answer.             

  More information about Mars available here. Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Art Trevena.