Of pars and Mars

Feb 26

Written by:
2/26/2012 8:28 AM  RssIcon

I like playing golf, and I was thinking the other day how I miss playing it.  I'm no good at it, but there is something about enjoying the outdoors with family and/or friends for several hours that makes even the worst game of golf a great day.  I haven't played it in a long time, for a variety of reasons, but I'm thinking this spring or summer just might see me back out there swinging a club.  And I seem to go through phases like that, where I play a lot of golf, then none at all for periods of time.

The planet Mars is sort of like that.  Earth orbits the Sun about every 365 days or so.  Mars revolves around the Sun in nearly twice the same period, at 687 days.  Because of that difference, Earth only "catches up" to Mars every 26 months or so.  We're only 'close' to the Red Planet just over every two years, and because the planet is not much bigger than our Moon - but much farther away - it winds up being one of the smaller planets visible in a telescope, despite the fact that is has such wonderful detail that can be seen (when duststorms don't obscure them, anyway).

On top of that small window of opportunity every 2+ years, there's the eccentricity of each orbit.  Both Earth and Mars do not have circular orbits; they are both elliptical.  And right now, the two planets are about as far away from each other as they get, despite being at the technical "closest" points in their orbits.  So we're at the "furthest, closest point" in something like 15 years.  Our next true close approach to Mars won't happen until 2018.  Oh sure, we'll have oppositions that will place us closer in 2014 and 2016.  But as you can see from this chart, the angular diameter of Mars is quite small right now, and doesn't get appreciably larger until at least 2016.  

So what to do?  Chip the shot up, make par, go to the next hole.  It's not perfect, but it is as good as we're going to get for a long while.  I was fortunate enough to have some nice steady seeing last night, so I looked at Mars at around 150x through my 90mm f/10 refractor.  Not a perfect view, because the angular diameter is small.  But a solid, steady view.  I thought I saw both north and south polar caps, but the small "summer" one may have been an illusion.  I definitely saw one.   And some nice dark markings on the surface too.  But what can you expect from a tiny disk?  Not much.  Chip it in, drain the putt, enjoy the day (or night, in this case).  And I did.  

It's not a bad night when you've seen a nice, steady image of Mars, even if it's not the best opposition ever.  But it's still worth the look, because the next really good opportunity won't come around for another 2 years or so.  And like par for the course playing golf on an otherwise beautiful day, if Mars is at opposition and steady, what more can you ask for when the conditions are right?  Enjoy it, have fun.

Clear and dark skies.

Tags: Mars , golf
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Location: Blogs Parent Separator The Nightlight

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.