Our Space

A map for the night's position of the planet Mars at 10pm as seen from Milledgeville, Ga. (Sept. 15, 2020).

If you happened to look up at the moon on Labor Day weekend — and what a pretty moon it was, the late summer Corn Moon — you may have noticed the bright red star right next to it. Well, that star was actually the planet Mars. Whenever it appears this close to the Moon in the night sky, police emergency hotlines light up all over the world, as people report a creepy bright orange-red UFO about to land on the Moon.

Deep breaths, everybody. Mars is so much farther away, there is no chance it could ever pose a problem to us or our trusty companion satellite. It will take the Perseverance Rover and its helicopter buddy Ingenuity some six months to reach the Red Planet (mark your calendars now — Feb. 18 is the date when the intrepid duo arrives!). 

Right now is an excellent time to go planet hunting. In the southern half of the night sky you can easily spot Jupiter, the brightest “star” over towards the West/ Southwest, and a short distance to its left is the less bright but easy to find Saturn. Towards the East/ Southeast you can catch Mars, and with a good pair of binoculars you can even spot the distant gas giants Uranus and Neptune, if you know where to look.

So… HOW do you know where to look?

There are a lot of apps you can download on your phone that will help you find those planets, and if you have a decent self-orienting telescope you just punch in what you want to see, and voilà – the telescope will find it for you. But if you enjoy the hunt with nothing but your bare eyes, a current star map will do the trick.

Here’s how you do it: go to https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/@z-us-31061 — this will give you the current day’s night sky for Milledgeville. Right away you get a list of which planets are visible, and when you can start looking for them. Scroll down a bit and you’ll see a map of the current sky and little pictures of the planets. Go ahead and click on Mars. The red dot on the timeline represents the current time. As you move the dot towards the right, the later in the day the map will appear. You can actually watch Mars rise in the night sky! The little pyramid shapes above the timeline give you the compass directions, and there are a few easy to spot star patterns to help you find your way.

While Mars is very bright right now it will get even better in the next three weeks, when Mars will get to its closest distance from Earth – a mere 38.57 million miles. By then it will be twice as bright as it is now! So in the next few weeks, if you look up at night and see a bright “star” that’s orangey-red and not flickering, chances are it’s Mars, which will in fact be one of the brightest objects in the night sky. So grab the kids and others from your social bubble and go Mars-hunting now – the next time we get to see Mars in such splendor will not be until 2035!

As the fourth planet from the sun, Mars shares many characteristics with Earth. Like Venus and Mercury, both are considered “rocky planets” or “terrestrial planets”. While Mercury and Venus are way too hot to be habitable, Mars is just borderline so. Granted, Mars is cold and very dry, but in many ways quite like Antarctica. The biggest issue is the lack of a breathable atmosphere. Mars air is way too thin and contains far too much carbon dioxide — one good deep breath on Mars will pretty much be your last one. But as all the Mars-exploring spacecraft and rovers have proven to us, Mars was once much warmer, and it had plenty of liquid water on its surface. Whether it ever had life remains to be seen. Perhaps Mars’ “wet and warm” period was too short for life to develop. Or maybe it did, and then moved far underground, as the ever-thinning atmosphere and diminishing magnetic field could no longer shield it from deadly radiation. We may never know for certain.

Soon there will be three more spacecraft exploring this mysterious red world – Arab, Chinese and American orbiters and landers are on their way, slated to arrive early next year. Perhaps one of them will find conclusive proof, or maybe the search has just begun. Hopefully one day soon we can send astronauts there to dig a little deeper – literally and figuratively speaking. In the meantime – look up! We can all be Martians in our imagination!

Learn more about the NASA Mars missions at https://mars.nasa.gov/ 

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at  our_space2@yahoo.com   

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