Mars Opposition | Observing Mars in our night sky on 13th October, 2020

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At last, the great Mars opposition is here for us to witness- October 13, 2020! This is the time in space when the Red Planet will appear bigger and brighter than it will be in years (at least until 2035).

Let’s know what and why that is and what it means to observe Mars.

This year skywatching has something special to serve you with. This is for the stargazers, skywatchers, and space-geeks. Here’s a little martian greeting for you all!

Mars has captured popular attention as no other planet has. If you look into the night sky these days, you’ll observe a bright red celestial bulb floating in the eastern sky.

That’s right, it’s Mars. The reason it’s so bright these days and you’re able to spot it without a handy telescope is because Mars is in the opposition to earth.


So what exactly is Mars Opposition?

Mars is the second smallest planet in the solar system, being only larger than the smallest Mercury. It’s about half the size of the earth. (Fun fact: If we push all the continents together on earth, the land area we get is almost equal to the land area of Mars).

And since Mars is the fourth planet in the solar system, it’s also farther away from the sun as compared to Earth. You can understand this with simple mathematics. So, if Earth is about 100 million miles from the Sun, Mars would be about 150 million miles from the same Sun.

Credit: Bob King

And because Mars orbits further away from the sun, it moves slower in its orbit. One martian year (year on Mars) is nearly equal to two terrain years (Year on Earth). This means that Mars completes its single rotation around the sun at the same time the earth completes its two.

So, as Earth and Mars move around their orbits around the sun, the distance between the two planets changes with the due course of time and space.

The closest they get is when earth catches up to and passes by Mars (which happened in the past week on 6th October 2020). So. when the earth passes Mars, it tends to appear opposite to the Sun in space, and therefore the Mars opposition.

It takes about 26 months for the next opposition to take place (which sets the date for September 15, 2035, for your next Martian opposition).


How to spot Mars in the night sky?

Curious about how to see Mars 2020’s closest approach and opposition?

mars-in-the-night-sky-from-earthDo you need astral equipment to look out for Mars? Well, the answer is a BIG NO.

If you’re sitting on your couch with no equipment on you, all you’ll need is to go to your terrace and gaze at the night sky of October-the-13th.

You’ll probably be able to see a small, bright, salmon-pink disc against a background starfield. You’ve spotted Mars right there with your bare eyes. Lovely isn’t it?

To see features on Mars, you’ll probably need a decent telescope (or a binocular). With a telescope, you’ll probably be able to mark out its surface feature fairly clearly as bright sand dunes and dark craters.

The planet’s largest apparent size occurs when it is closest to Earth which we had observed in the night sky of October 6th, 2020.


What will Mars look like in opposition?

At this October’s opposition, Mars will be facing Earth with its southern hemisphere. You will be able to observe dark and light areas on Mars- which are called the “albedos”.

These albedos will be visible because of the variations in reflectivity of light across the atmosphere of the two planets.

The lighter regions are the desert areas on the surface of Mars which majorly is loose sand. On the other hand, the darker regions are the exposed rocks with mineral deposits.

In addition to this, the polar ice caps on Mars can be observed to shine brightly. Of which we will mostly be able to see the south polar cap in our view since Mars will be facing earth with its south-ward inclination.

And, since it’s going to be a southern summer on mars right now, the polar ice caps might appear greatly shrunken in size.

Of the north pole, since it’s on the other side of the axial view, we will be able to see the shroud of clouds (also called “hood”) currently covering it, only partially visible.

Check Out, Earth’s Tilt – The Reason for Season on Earth


What features to look out for when observing Mars?

Credit: NASA

One of the very reasons why we have been curious about Mars as observers are that the planet once looked more like Earth. As Mars gets larger as it approaches Earth during Mars opposition, its surface details will be easier to see.

You can observe dark and bright areas on its surface. As we have learned, these are called albedo features: areas that appear bright or dark due to the amount of light they reflect.

The larger in size and darker, in contrast, an albedo feature is, the easier it is to see it through a small telescope. The clearest feature would be the “Syrtis Major”, which is a V-shaped, low-level shield volcano on Mars.

When it has rotated back into the same view, the tip of Syrtis Major appears to be pointing north, appearing to extend quite clearly towards the north of Mars during the 2020 opposition.

Between the base of Syrtis Major and the south pole on Mars lies the “Hellas Basin”. This huge basin is one of the largest impact craters in the Solar System. Hellas can seem to appear bright due to clouds that form in its basin.

If you’ve been observing Mars from night to night, be aware that the planet’s rotation period is almost 40 minutes longer than Earth’s, at 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds. This means that you’ll be able to relocate the central features on Mars’s disc 40 minutes later on each consecutive night.

That simply can be understood as- If you observe a feature on Mars surface at night and see a prominent feature at the center of its disc (also known as Mars’s central meridian).

The next night at exactly the same time, that same feature would appear slightly further and take an extra 40 minutes to reach the center disc once again. The night after that, viewing at the same time, the feature would take 80 minutes to reach the central disc.

It looks as if Mars reset its position every consecutive night, giving its observers just an extra glimpse of its new surface before it does a re-run of what you saw previously. Eventually, of course, you do get to see the whole of it, but this ‘reset and re-run’ always catches the observers out.


What is the meaning and significance of observing Mars?

It’s not untrue to say that Mars might become our new world in the future of humanity. We’ve spent a decade studying Mars, religiously as a futuristic hope in the world of science and civilization.

Over the last century, everything that we’ve learned and discovered about Mars have all suggested that it once showed the possibility of a hospitable ecosystem- and that there are positive signs of life on the planet in the near future.

Humanity has now become a bit about our ability to land on Mars itself. We’ve studied its atmosphere. We are sending robots and satellites to keep up with it. We are in fact hoping to send the first humans on Mars by the 2030s. This is more time to observe Mars than anytime before.

image-from-the-martian-movieThis time is also occasional as during a Martian opposition the Earth and Mars both align in the closest proximity that minimizes travel times and expense, enabling spacecraft and orbital robots to make the interplanetary journey in roughly half a year.

This is one of the remarkable times when most of our major space agencies tend to launch space probes to Mars. In fact, few nations are already on it:

  • UAE launched its Hope spacecraft on July 20th to study Mars for its atmosphere and weather patterns.
  • China launched its Tianwen-1 on July 23rd.
  • The USA launched its Perseverance rover on July 30th to study Martian climate and weather, test technologies that could help humans survive on Mars.

Most of these have been sent out into the Martian orbit in an attempt to determine whether Mars was- or is- or in the coming future- show signs of inhabitation, making it a true life-finding Mars mission. All of our efforts have, of course, laid the groundwork for sending humans to this red planet.

NASA has bookmarked the 2030s for sending humans on Mars and is in fact working on developing a space capsule, Orion, that will be able to ferry humans to the moon and beyond.

And the popular culture around companies such as SpaceX has filled us with quite the buzz around how we’ll soon be able to land on Mars.

A popular belief by Elon Musk has been repeatedly about how humanity must become “a multi-planetary species” if we are to survive, and he is working on a plan that could see a batch of humans living on Mars before the end of this century.

Soon, in one way or another, humanity may finally know whether our sister planet ever hosted life- and whether there’s a future for us in another world.

So make sure you take this chance to view the captivating world of Mars when it’s better presented than at any other time for years to come.

Sky gazing is mysteriously mesmerizing. When you’re looking up in the sky, you’d be looking at both the past and the future. You could be looking at a world which one day may be accessible to us and might as well have humans living on, or beneath, it’s surface.

One more important thing, don’t forget to wear your mask while going outside. If you won’t, you will risk your life as well as of others too.

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