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Mars is close, bright and visible to the naked eye

Mars (NASA/Released)

With night skies expected to be clear for the next few day, Mars’ bright red luminance, visible to the naked eye, may lure Oregonians out of their house to see how it outshines nearby Jupiter.

The red planet is in a peak position of celestial brilliance now as Mars is in opposition with Earth. It’s a view of Mars that won’t be seen again until September 2035.

Planetary opposition is the point in which a planet is 180 degrees from the sun with Earth in between — the planet is opposite of the sun in our sky.

“Mars oppositions occur approximately every 25.5 months. Because of the two planets’ elliptical orbits, even at each opposition the distance between Earth and Mars can vary by almost 31 million miles,” said Jim Todd, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry director of Space Science Education.

To see the Martian planet most prominently in the night sky, it would be advantageous to seek sooner rather than later, even though it will be visible for the rest of 2020. Mars was closest to Earth on Oct. 6 at only 38.5 million miles away. In just a short time, the planet has moved .07 million miles and grows dimmer as it leaves opposition, Todd explained.

Lane County is forecasted to have a low pressure storm move in on Tuesday night, causing low visibility over much of the valley, however conditions will improve.

“It looks like there’s a good chance that Wednesday night and Thursday night

will be clear. Probably the best time for (a clear view) will be earlier in the night, just in case the fog starts to develop,” said Meteorologist Treena Jensen with the National Weather Service Portland.

Any fog will likely be shallow on Thursday and Friday, so if visibility on the valley floor is limited, a higher elevation might allow for unobstructed viewing.

Mars will rise from the east at sunset around 6:27 p.m., climb to its highest position at 49 degrees above the southern horizon near 1 a.m. and set in the west at sunrise, according to Todd.

Mars is Jeff Phillips’ favorite planet to observe because it is the most Earth-like planet to a backyard telescope, which has been revealing impressive detail of Mars. Phillips has been a member of the Eugene Astronomical Society for 20 years and has even built his own observatory with a Celestron C11 telescope at his home in Lorane.

“Some of the times that Earth catches up to Mars are better than others, and this is one of the best ones. Earth is closest to Mars in the same month that Mars is closest to the Sun, called a perihelic opposition,” Phillips said. He said this is the best view he’s had of Mars since 2005.

In 2005, Phillips was able to capture a dust storm moving through the Valles Marineris, “the Grand Canyon of Mars.” With a powerful enough telescope — probably not what you might get at a department store — changes in Mars’ atmosphere are visible.

For the novice gazer, Mars’ red glow can be celebrated in an array of ways. It can be as simple as stepping out into the neighborhood or driving to Fern Ridge to watch its red gleam rise over the water, Phillips said. He has noted a significant amount of dust in the red planet’s atmosphere and recommends photographing and then enlarging the image for a detailed look.

“Mars is brighter than any star right now. If you get a clear evening, just look to the east,” Phillips said.


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