Image: Courtesy of NASA
This autumn Mars will be a prominent object in the south-eastern night sky, its bright orangey-red disk an easy object some way below the fainter stars of Pisces, the Fishes. Mars will be at its closest to Earth on 6th October at a distance of 38.5 million mile - a small distance by interplanetary standards. In fact, it’s one of the best close encounters for many years to come. Mars will be up all night long, outshining every star in the night sky.
On 13th October, Mars will be at opposition, i.e. due south at local midnight, which means that the planet will be at its best for telescopic observation for the whole of October. Mars will remain visible for more than 12 months after opposition and then become lost in the glare of evening twilight in late August 2021 as it approaches its next conjunction with the Sun.
Mars is a lovely sight, shining more than twice as brightly as Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, and its disk has swollen large enough that even backyard telescopes can reveal surface details. No telescope? No problem. The reddish hue of Mars is easy to see with the unaided eye. Simply step outside between late evening and dawn, and look south-east. You can't miss it!
Spacecraft have shown us a bitterly cold, dry planet, with huge volcanoes, vast canyons, craters and ancient river valleys. Far from being a world where nothing ever happens, Mars has landslides, whirlwinds and great dust storms.
But long, long ago, Mars was very different. It was warmer and wetter, and water flowed on the surface; there were rivers, lakes, floods and even small seas. Under these conditions, did any form of microbial life try to gain a foothold on the Red Planet? Was there ever life on Mars? Come to the Planetarium to find out…
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