Originally published in The Stellar Sentinel, Newsletter of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society, June 2018
The planet Mars has oppositions from the Sun about every 26 months more or less. These oppositions are a time when Mars is closest to the Earth for its position in orbit. It’s distance at these times range from 34.6 to almost 63 million miles, a range of almost 2 to 1. This is because Mars has a very elliptical orbit as can be seen in the illustration on page 2.
Especially close approaches to the Earth occur every 15 or 17 years in the latter half of summer in those years. My first close approach was September 7, 1956. It was a famous one for the time. Professional astronomers of that time were pretty sure that Mars didn’t have canals, features that were ‘discovered’ by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877. To him the features were grooves or channels. Unfortunately the Italian word for them was canali. The world press proclaimed that there were “canals” on Mars. Canals by definition are artificial and require canal builders, Martians by inference.
Like I said, professional astronomers had discounted them by 1956. But science fiction read by young impressionable amateur astronomers like myself talked about old races of Martians hoarding every last drop of water. So maybe we believed. With my 5 inch reflector I observed the polar cap and the large dark feature Syrtis Major.
My next close approach of Mars was August 12, 1971. That summer I was working out of town and in the midst of a move from Grand Rapids to Traverse City, so was unable to observe Mars properly.
In the summer and autumn of 1973 I was able to do an observing program of Mars when it was almost as close as in 1971, drawing its features. I found out that to really observe a planet it takes time to educate the eye and brain to see faint, fuzzy detail. And since I didn’t believe in canals by this time, I didn’t see them.
The next close approach was September 22, 1988. The first “Mars Night” held by the society. We had a great turnout. But Mars was tiny as seen in telescopes. At best it was 23.81 seconds of arc in diameter. The Moon and Sun are about 1,800 seconds in diameter. It would be a bit larger than half the apparent diameter of Jupiter at average distance.
On August 27, 2003 Mars came closer than at any time in 50,000 years some astronomers said. The society held its second “Mars Night” at the Rogers Observatory, and wow, the lines of people ran down the drive and onto the shoulder of the road. As in 1988, I was stationed on the lawn at the front of the observatory with the portable Celestron 11 telescope, which actually gave clearer views than the 14 inch telescope in the dome. (Hot bodies in dome make for lousy seeing.)
2003 is also memorable or rather infamous for the “Mars Hoax” email. Proclaiming that Mars would appear as large as the Moon on August 27th. This hoax has been propagated every two years since. I expect 2018 to be a banner year for the resurrection of the hoax.
We come to this year, 2018, 15 years after the 2003 closest approach. Mars will reach opposition on July 27th. It’s closest approach to the Earth will be on July 31st, at the distance of 35,784,000 miles. The reason the dates aren’t the same is that Mars will still be a month before reaching perihelion, its closest to the Sun, so it’s getting even closer than at the time of opposition.
The Mars oppositions of October 2020, December 2022, January 2025 and February 2027 will be of increasing distances up to 63.0 million miles. This will be followed by oppositions of decreasing distances in March 2029, May 2031, and July 2033 leading to another close approach on September 11, 3035 at 35.4 million miles.
However by 2035 there may be humans on Mars waving back at us. It’s odd that anyone on Mars at the time probably wouldn’t be able to see the Earth at that time. Martian oppositions for us, are the time of inferior conjunctions of Earth with the Sun. We’d be lost in the Sun’s glare.
For the very closest views of Mars get on the Internet and search for Mars Curiosity, Mars Opportunity and Mars Hirise. No telescope required.
Questions? Send Email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org