Mars is the fourth planet of the Solar System. Oxidized crystalline
rocks on the surface of Mars give it it's tinged blood-red color. Ares
was the Greek God of War. Named Mars by the Romans, the god enjoyed the
portfolio of both War and Agriculture. So important was Mars to the
Romans that the first month of the Roman year, March, was named after
him. The two moons of Mars are named after his two sons, Phobos and
Deimos (Fear & Panic). The only other object so red in the night sky is
a red star in the constellation Scorpius that the ancients named Antares
(Anti-Ares). In India, Mangal (Mars) represents anger, aggression,
ambition, courage, and roguery. A Hindu marriage is not complete without
the Mangal sutra, a necklace made from blood red corals. NASA Photo Mars
Mars can be found in the constellation Aquarius on
August 27, 2003, at 09:52 UT, the moment of closest approach. Note that
Uranus is also in Aquarius, and that Neptune is just next door in
Capricorn. Chart from Sky Map Pro 5.0. Click on image for enlarged
In 2003 Mars will reach opposition in the constellation Aquarius near
the celestial equator. At opposition, Mars will shine as a brilliant
yellow-orange beacon in the sky. Through a telescope, Mars will at first
present only a shimmering yellow-orange disk. To the visual observer
viewing it at 80x magnification, Mars will appear as large as the Full
Moon viewed with the naked eye. Mars is then 25 arc-seconds in diameter.
To place this in perspective, this is the angular diameter of a
basketball one mile away.
Your first views of Mars will not be exciting. If you begin observing
in May and June while the disk of the planet is still small, you may not
see any surface detail at all. Don’t give up.
As Mars comes closer to Earth during the early mornings of July and
August, the disk will grow dramatically in size and move higher in the
sky. During the time when the disk is still small, you must train your
“observing eye” to detect the delicate contrasts of the planet, so when
Mars nears its maximum size at opposition, you will be ready.
Under excellent seeing conditions, a 4-inch telescope should give a
sharp image at 200x; an 8-inch may be able to handle magnifications as
high as 400x. Generally the best and sharpest views will be at
medium-high magnifications of 30x to 40x per inch of aperture or 240x to
320x for an 8-inch telescope. But on nights when the air is still and
calm, magnifications of 50x per inch of aperture may prove useful if
your telescope has good optics.
In a 4-inch telescope you’ll be able to see large surface features,
bright clouds, limb brightenings that occur when there’s a lot of haze
in the Martian atmosphere, large dust storms, the expansion or shrinkage
of the polar caps, and “violet clearings” that occur when the Martian
atmosphere becomes unusually clear to violet light. Because of the
limited resolution of a 4-inch telescope, you’ll be able to see these
features for only about ten weeks on either side of opposition while
Mars is nearby and large.
With a 6- to 10-inch telescope you will be able to follow the same
features for twelve to fourteen weeks on either side of opposition, and
near opposition you will be able to see smaller clouds and dark features
than you could with a 4-inch telescope. You can follow the advance and
retreat of the polar caps in fine detail and check for irregularities in
the polar cap boundary. You can also watch for changes in the shape and
extent of the Martian surface features. Change may occur after major
A telescope of 12 inches or more of aperture can make any of the
features easier to see and increase the quality of your observations.
You will also be able to check for subtle changes in the color of
surface features and clouds. One of the most valuable contributions you
can make with a larger telescope is a uniform series of high-resolution
photographs or CCD images of the planet in color or in black and white.
AAAA Mars Card
|The AAAA Mars Card is a concise way to learn the
essential information about Mars during the current favorable opposition
in August and September 2003. Just click on either image to down load our
PDF, print it off, and make copies for yourself and to hand out at your
own Mars Observing Events for friends and the general public!
Make the Photocopies!
have time to make copies? Let us do the work for you. We will make copies
at $10 per 100 postpaid, as many as you want, and send them to you via
USPS Mail! Order online through CCNow, our Online Retailer. Canadian and
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Planning for the Public
In planning any special Mars observing activities for the
general public or the media, keep in mind that in late August
when Mars is closest (diameter about 25 arc sec), it will only rise
about 30 degrees above the horizon at midnight ... so not good for
"early evening" observing. However, this situation improves through September:
end of September, Mars will still be over 20 arc sec. in diameter, but will cross the meridian (a bit more than 30
degrees high) earlier ... about 9:30PM. This placement is somewhat
better for public programs.
As always, there is the danger of
planet-wide dust storms at this perihelion. Storm activity on Mars will
easily wipe out any surface features otherwise visible.
Society has proclaimed August 27, 2003, the date of opposition, as "Mars
Day". The Planetary Society has a goal of "half of the world's
population looking at, or thinking about, Mars" on Mars day. So please
circle this day on your calendar. Now is the time to start planning Mars
Parties in your local area.
This chart by C.F. Chapin shows the
relative positions of Mars and Earth for the years 1988 to 2003. The
last great opposition of Mars was 1988. On August 28, 2003, Mars will be
at its closest approach to Earth in recorded history, at a distance of
only 34,646,418 miles.
Click on image for