A Treat for Eastern Sky Watchers!

On July 27, Eastern’s Planetarium hosted “Mars at Opposition,” an event taking place every two years where the Earth and Mars line up in space. It’s called an “opposition” when Mars lies opposite the sun from the Earth.

According to Physical Sciences Professor Russell Sampson, who also is co-director of the Robert K. Wickware Planetarium, this phenomenon is ”like two celestial ships passing in the night, when the Red Planet is at its closest, its brightest and its biggest in our telescopes.  Amateur astronomers wanting to get an eye-full of its surface features wait in sleepless anticipation for these events.”

“I’ve been watching Mars draw nearer to Earth since late fall of last year – it’s what I do,” Sampson continued. “The exact moment of opposition was at 1 a.m. EDT.  Sampson attached an illustration (above) from visual observations of Mars he made on July 19 between 10 and 11 p.m. EDT.  He was looking through his telescope with about 120 power of magnification, making Mars appear slightly larger than the Full Moon. The image on the left is what he saw the vast majority of the time he was looking.  The grey blobs are visual “floaters,” pieces of congealed vitreous humor – the normally clear fluid inside our eyeballs.  These floaters are in everyone’s eyes, and stand out in annoying clarity when the light piercing our eye is a laser-like beam from a high magnification telescope.  On the edges of the illustration are what appear to be pieces of the planet boiling off of its surface.  “This is caused by our turbulent atmosphere and is like looking at your poolside friends from the bottom of a rippling swimming pool. Put all this together and the typical telescopic view of Mars is a hot mess.”

“The image on the right is a rare moment, a visible feature of a faint brightening in the southern hemisphere, possibly high altitude clouds, or possibly the south polar cap peaking through that rusty-dusty haze,” said Sampson. “The Martian Polar Caps are made of frozen carbon dioxide and water ice. The rest is a dust storm that, if on Earth, would blanket entire continents.”