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Friday, September 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Mars making a brilliant pass near Earth this week

This image made available by NASA shows the planet Mars, which is projected to make its closest approach to Eart in 15 years on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. This composite photo was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. (AP)
This image made available by NASA shows the planet Mars, which is projected to make its closest approach to Eart in 15 years on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. This composite photo was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. (AP)

Look to the south or southeast sky after dark during the next week or so and you will see the brightly beaming, rust-colored planet Mars.

It looks like a small jewel hanging about 30 to 35 degrees above the horizon.

“It is very bright,” Eastern Washington University astronomy professor Robert Ruotsalainen said.

Much of the world dimmed Friday under a “blood moon,” the longest complete lunar eclipse of this century. The event was not visible in Spokane, but regional skywatchers may take some consolation in the startling clarity of Mars as it hangs in the summer sky.

While the planet is pretty to look at, this is not an unusual event. Mars comes close to Earth approximately every two years, Ruotsalainen said. However, this is the closest the planet has come since 2003. Unlike a lunar eclipse, this closeness is not a one-day event. “It will be bright for several weeks,” Ruotsalainen said.

According to NASA, Mars is orbiting at 35.8 million miles from Earth with its closest pass and brightest period running for five days, with the final day, Tuesday, being the date of closest proximity.

This is due to the elliptical, or egg-shaped, orbits of both Earth and Mars, NASA said.

Mars isn’t alone. Other naked-eye planets are visible in the evening, including Mercury, which hovers above the western horizon in the late twilight. Moving from west to east are Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.

Venus and Jupiter, along with Mars, are easy to pick out because of their brightness.

Mars is near the constellation Sagittarius, which has a star formation often referred to as a teapot.

Astronomers gauge brightness, or magnitude, on a scale that assigns negative numbers as objects become brighter. Mars was at magnitude of minus 0.5 in May and is now at a magnitude of minus 2.7.

The next time Mars will come close to Earth will be on Oct. 6, 2020, at a distance of 38.6 million miles. Ruotsalainen said that event will be much like the current close pass.

In 2003, Mars came even closer to Earth.

He said he thinks the public’s interest in Mars may be related to the recent discovery of water below the planet’s surface and the discoveries of robotic explorers over the years.

NASA said that an urban legend that Mars will be the apparent size of the moon is false.

Joe Bruce, the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory ambassador in Spokane, said, “You don’t need a big fancy telescope” to enjoy the brightness of Mars.

Bruce’s updates on astronomy and space exploration can be found on his Facebook page.

‘Blood moon’ passes on

Elsewhere in the world – visible at different times in Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe and South America – the moon’s face darkened as the Earth’s shadow came between it and the sun.

The total eclipse lasted 1 hour and 43 minutes, with the entire event lasting closer to four hours.

Across Africa, people turned to the sky, watching the reddish shadow slide up the moon’s surface. In Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, hundreds of people hurried to mosques for special prayers often observed during lunar eclipses while clerics on loudspeakers urged them along.

In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, people at an open-air restaurant admired a rare clear view during the rainy season, comparing a live NASA webcast to what they saw above. Then clouds rolled in.

“Dem yelebesech chereka,” some murmured – Amharic for “blood moon.”

“The reason that the moon turns red is because atmospheric scattering causes red light to pass through the atmosphere and the composition of the atmosphere can change if volcanic eruptions or forest fires occur,” said Tom Kerss, an astronomer with the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

“And the density of dust increasing in the atmosphere can cause the moon to appear a particularly deep red, and indeed it has the same effect on our sunsets and sunrises.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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