Mars Rules The Night

It's looking good but it's gonna get a whole lot better!

The Red Planet’s best appearance in 2012 happens in March. The Red Planet comes closer to Earth this March than it has in two years, providing earthbound observers with exquisite views. Mars reaches a point in its orbit called opposition March 4 (AEST) , allowing for some of the best views for years. At such times — which occur 780 days apart (minus 1 hour, 26 minutes, and 24 seconds, to be exact) — the Red Planet is number one on the minds of astronomers. Opposition is when Mars, as seen in our sky, lies opposite the Sun. It rises at sunset, climbs highest at midnight, and peaks in brightness for the year.

The Red Planet comes closer to Earth this March than it has in two years, providing earthbound observers with exquisite views.

But every opposition is not the same because the orbits of Earth and Mars are not circular. During a distant opposition, Mars can be more than 60 million miles (97 million kilometers) away. Contrast that with a nearby opposition that places Mars less than 35 million miles (56 million km) from Earth. Interestingly, the date of opposition need not necessarily coincide with the date of closest approach due to the complexities of planetary orbits.

On March 4, the Red Planet lies 62.6 million miles (100.8 million km) from Earth. It measures just 13.9″ across at opposition before dropping to 12.7″ by the end of March.  This year though the planet is nearest to us on the 6th at 100, 780,000Kms. Not looming overly large in the eyepiece, it’s that small disc that earthly astronomers — using telescopes of every size and variety — are magnifying to reveal surface and atmospheric details.

But you don’t need a telescope to see Mars this month. In fact, even from the brightest city, you can spot the planet on a clear night with just your eyes. When searching for Mars, keep a couple of things in mind. First, during this opposition, after sunset the Red Planet is the fourth-brightest starlike object overall, but the brightest one in the eastern part of the sky. Second, Mars appears copper or whitish-orange in color, not a deep red. For centuries, Mars has been called the Red Planet because of iron compounds in its soil and rocks. During opposition, however, the planet is too brilliant to be red.

Veteran planetary observer Raymond Shubinski says, “If you use a telescope to view Mars, remember that it’s now late spring in the planet’s northern hemisphere, so that part of the globe tips in our direction.”

Observers should have a good view as the north polar cap shrinks under ever-stronger solar radiation. Most other surface features appear as dusky markings. “The best views come when the planet lies highest in the sky around midnight,” Shubinski says, “because that’s when we see it through the least amount of our image-distorting atmosphere.”

At opposition, Mars shines at magnitude –1.2 in the southeastern part of the constellation Leo the Lion. It then heads west-northwest toward the Lion’s brightest star, 1st-magnitude Regulus. The planet ends the month about 5° shy of that target while glowing at a still-impressive magnitude –0.7. Mars will not appear this big or bright again until its next opposition April 8, 2014.


  • From Mars, the Sun appears 44 percent as bright as it does from Earth.
  • Mars has a total of 1,345 named features, of which 845 are craters.
  • Earth is 9.3 times as massive as Mars.
  • During the 19th century, astronomers referred to supposed inhabitants of Mars as “Martials.”

Source: Astronomy Magazine


The Red Planet Diner – Sedona

The Red Planet Diner - Sedona

[A review of the diner by a recent visitor:] Nobody, not even residents of Sedona, could deny that it is an eminently quirky community. In fact, that is its primary claim to fame. We have been exploring some of the local attractions. Grace has lived here for seventeen years, so she knows the lay of the land pretty well. One place which attracted my attention from the beginning is the Red Planet Diner on Route 89A, the main drag through Oak Creek Village.

It’s not all that impressive from the outside. It defies the sensibilities of the Sedona Color Police, who insist that desert tones are the only suitable shades for architecture. Sedona is the only place in the world where the golden arches of McDonalds are teal. Aside from the flashy neon sign in front, there is not much to attract the attention of passersby.

Oh, wait. There is one other little thing. Just off the road in front of the parking lot is a captured flying saucer. As I have heard, the proper term is Unidentified Flying Object. This, however, does not seem to fit, as this object has been clearly identified. It is an Unreasonably Funny Object:

I won’t show you images of the food. I’ve had to many complaints about ugly food here at MPBM. I will, however, say that the menu is typically diner-style. There are plenty of choices and the meal we had was very tasty. They have a decent bar. The service is cheerful and amusing. All of the staff wear t-shirts bearing the greeting, “Welcome Earthlings.”:

It probably the only establishment on the planet featuring an alien restroom attendant:

Alas, there is no jukebox. The selection boxes at the tables have long been colonized by tiny aliens:

Other small aliens float ghostlike around the ceiling while their scout ship hovers silently:

A more robust alien serves as maître d’:

The usual “Please wait to be seated” placard is replace by a more amusing version.

I couldn’t resist posing Grace at the door. Really, someone should talk to these aliens about clothing:

Grace was visibly discomfited by the proximity of a naturalist alien.

I find myself in a place where being far out on the fringes of the bell curve is perfectly acceptable. The presence of many long-haired, freaky people is very comforting. It’s not unlike a warmer Hamilton, Ontario, except for the pervasive woo-woo factor. It will be interesting to see what happens to Sedona when the New Age becomes passé, as it surely will.

Nothing lasts forever. Source: Flickr


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