Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mars - The red planet

The best visible planet these nights is Mars. Mars is the fourth rock from the sun so it is indeed one of our closest neighbors in space. These nights, while Jupiter is setting early and Saturn rising late, Mars dominates the skies the entire night long. Coincidentally or not, Mars is currently the nearest to the earth that it will be until 2013.

When Mars is so close (Less than 100 Million km) it is very easy to observe. Even for the naked eye it looks very bright and very red.

Mars is currently (3/2012) in Leo (Lion),Using a telescope at this distance, one might observe some details on Mars. Its ice pole (not water ice but CO2 ice) is visible even with small telescopes.

Mars distance (and apparent size) changes dramatically throughout the year. Richard Bosman created a photo which will show this affect.

Mars - Richard Bosman

Retrograde Motion

Even the ancient observers saw the retrograde motion. A planet seems to go slower than usual, then stop and then move in the opposite direction in the skies, then stopped and resume its normal direction. This motion is called retrograde motion and it is cause by the mutual movements of the planet and Earth.

Currently (March 2012) Mars is moving in a retrograde motion. It runs from east to west, which is the opposite direction of the normal motion – towards the east. Mars is getting closer to Regulus and the distance will be only 4 degrees at April 20th 2012. Observe Mars every three days and the motion will be clearly visible.
Mars has a lot of active electronic equipment on its surface. There are two rovers: Spirit and Opportunity. The rovers were planned for 3 months missions but are living for well over 5 years although facing many problems such as stuck wheels and motors, dust storms, long winters etc. Spirit ceased to function but opportunity is still alive. A new rover, Curiosity is on the way to Mars, reaching and landing in August 2012.

The Phoenix probe landed in 2012, and had a successful mission, finding that water ice exists on Mars. The probe is at very north latitude and is not expected to survive the long mar winter (With temperature around -110C). However, scientists at NASA try to listen for any signals form it in case it did manage to survive.

Around mars there are other orbiters, which take fascinating pictures and used for communications from Earth to all things on Mars.

Martian Landscape from NASA

Mars is an attractive location for human settlements. It has an atmosphere with CO2 which theoretically with a little photosynthesis can be turned into a rich Oxygen atmosphere. Deep in Mars there are lots of geothermic energy source, and scientists still looking for evidence of Bacteria or other living things. It is speculated that life started on Mars and only then moved to Earth.

There are some rocks from Mars on Earth. The most famous of them is ALH 94001 (The first rock to be found in the 1994 season in Allan Hills Alaska). That rock did a long way from Mars to Earth and for some time, scientist thought it contains some hints of Martian life.

Last and not least. Mars' color is red since it is rusty! Mars rocks contains large amount of iron which in time got rusty from the little oxygen in the atmosphere. If you anjoy the red color of mars it is not blood, but rust.

Get out and enjoy watching our red neighbor.