Saturday is the free public star party at the Park at River Walk hosted by the Kern Astronomical Society. Observing will begin a little before sunset with looking at the waxing gibbous moon. As the sky darkens, take a look at Venus and Jupiter and then Saturn. Toward the end of the star party (about 10 p.m.), you might be able to see Mars through the telescopes.

Mars rises just after sunset Saturday night. It is heading toward “opposition” on July 27 when Mars will be directly opposite the sun on our sky as Earth passes directly between the sun and Mars in our inside orbit. This happens every two years and 50 days (or a total of 780 days). Since the timing of opposition is 50 days off from an exact two year timeframe and both Earth's and Mars’ orbits are not perfect circles and their orbits are tipped with respect to each other (and, and …), some oppositions are closer than others.

Every 15 or 17 years, Mars’ opposition happens near its perihelion, when the planet is closest to the sun. At those oppositions, Mars can get especially close to us and appear very bright, even brighter than Jupiter! That happens this year. The previous “perihelic opposition” happened in late August 2003. The 2003 opposition was extremely close — the closest in nearly 60,000 years (59,619 years to be more precise). This month’s close approach will be about 3 percent farther away (or about 1.1 million miles) than the 2003 close approach.

You'll probably see the “Mars Hoax” appearing soon (if not already) in your email or on your favorite social network site that says Mars will appear as big as the full moon. The hoax pops up around every Mars opposition. If Mars actually got that close to appear as big as the moon, the tides from Mars would be about 86 percent the strength of the tides from the moon, which would really mess up the ocean tides around the world, not to mention messing up the orbit of the moon around the earth and changing our orbit around the sun. The Mars Hoax is just plain bad on a variety of levels.

So what sort of things on Mars will you be able to see through the KAS telescopes at this close approach? As I write this, Mars is still in the throes of a global dust storm, so the answer might be, “not much beyond a big orange fuzz ball with a hint of a white polar cap.” If the storm clears up, then you could see all sorts of light and dark features. The Mars Profiler from Sky & Telescope at will help you identify the features.

If Mars is washed out, then take a look at Saturn, which is always beautiful, or Jupiter. Hercules will be high overhead, so the globular cluster, M13, will be easy to see. It’s a favorite of mine. The Ring Nebula in Lyra will also be high up.

Pyrenees star party, other fun in France

I had the chance to see M13 and the Ring Nebula during a short (too short!) star party at the Pic du Midi Observatory three weeks ago. The tour of the observatory was part of a planetarium conference in France. The observatory, located in the Pyrenees in southern France, is over 9,400 feet elevation and the air is very stable, so the images are sharp. One of the telescopes at Pic du Midi was used to take high-resolution images of the moon in preparation for the Apollo missions.

When our group arrived at the ski village at the base of the mountain, we were quite worried because the sky was overcast gray and misty. We took a gondola up the slope through the clouds. When we rose above the clouds into glorious sunshine, applause and shouts of joy broke out. We got to see a beautiful sunset but had to leave before the sky got truly dark. I found out that it’s possible to rent a room at the observatory and the food and wine are excellent, so my next visit will be an all-nighter (or two).

Along with the usual presentations about planetarium equipment and techniques, there were some astronomy research talks. One talk was about the future of interplanetary missions through 2068. That year was chosen because it includes the next passage of Halley’s Comet through our neighborhood (in 2061) and 2068 will be the centennial of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

One of the cool plans within the next 50 years is to send a 3D printer to a small asteroid and have it use the asteroid’s material to create the rocket engines at the asteroid’s surface and living quarters inside the asteroid, so the asteroid rock can provide the shielding from the solar radiation. Many asteroids have a large amount of hydrated minerals from which water can be extracted. If the technology can be developed, we won't need to lift large masses of material from Earth’s surface and we can hop, skip, and jump our way around the solar system!

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