Mars rivals jack-o'-lanterns this Halloween

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 12, 2005

Have you noticed the very bright amber spot of light lately in the mid-evening eastern sky? It's getting closer and bigger and brighter night by night.

In fact, by Halloween it'll be so prominent that if H.G. Wells could see it, he'd no doubt add another chapter to his War of the Worlds.

But no, there are no extra-terrestrials coming, and no, contrary to this past summer's Internet hoax, this dot of light won't get anywhere near as big and bright as the moon.

It's Mars, of course.

The Red Planet will be quite spectacular for the next few weeks as it makes its closest approach to Earth for 2005. Next to the Moon and Venus, it's the brightest object in the evening sky. And it's free for all to enjoy.

Mars rises soon after sunset and is well up in the sky by the time Venus is setting in the southwest.

My wife Mary Anna and I were struck by Mars's obvious splendour the other night around 10 o'clock while driving east down Wildcat Hills Road west of Cochrane.

Mary Anna was the first to spot him – I was too busy watching for deer along the road. Yes, there he was, like flaming gold! And the "god of war" was surrounded by a heavenly entourage.

Just off to the north danced the Pleiades, the delightful stellar jewel box shaped like a miniature coffee cup, its six or seven brightest stars visible to the naked eye, while a couple of hundred stars reveal themselves through even a modest backyard telescope.

The Pleiades is my favourite binocular cluster, for it shares much of its timeless beauty even in a seven- to ten-power pair of binoculars, filling over a third of the field of view.

Mars is positioned right now between the constellations Taurus "the bull" and Aries. From my vantage point along Wildcat Hills Road, it was as if Mars were pulling the bull up the sky, for not too far toward the eastern horizon was another bright amber point of light (but nowhere near as bright as Mars), the star Aldebaran, "the eye of the bull." Could Orion "the hunter" be far behind?

Another very bright star, Capella, in the constellation Auriga, twinkled off to Aldebaran's left, while to the north lay Perseus, provider of August's awesome meteor shower, and to the northwest "W"-shaped Cassiopeia and legendary Andromeda.

I wish I'd had my binoculars with me that night, for the sky was so clear I'm sure I could have easily spotted the Andromeda Galaxy, our Milky Way's nearest galactic neighbour, only 2.2 million light years away (the most distant object visible to the naked eye, if you have good vision).

For those of you interested in some trivia concerning the Red Planet, here' s a short list with which to dazzle your coffee companions:

  • Mars is about 228 million km from the Sun.
  • This Halloween Mars will be only about 70 million km from Earth, just a stone's throw away in galactic terms.
  • It is the seventh-largest planet in our solar system.
  • Our month March is named after Mars.
  • There are no "canals" on Mars, as once believed, but there is water. (Its polar icecaps consist of water ice and dry ice.)
  • Mars is host to the highest mountain in the Solar System. Olympus Mons rises 24 km above its surroundings. But if you're thinking of climbing it some day, you'll have to scale a cliff over 6 km high.
  • Martian features are not only high, but deep, too. It has a system of canyons that, at 4,000 km long and up to 7 km deep, dwarfs Earth's Grand Canyon by a long shot. It also has an impact crater 6 km deep and 2, 000 km in diameter – if there ever was life on Mars, a collision that powerful could certainly explain why there isn't any now, H.G. Wells notwithstanding.
  • Mars has an atmosphere, but not nearly as much as Earth's. It consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide, and has a surface air pressure only about one percent of Earth's.

If you are interested in learning more about Mars, do a Google search; there are many, many Web sites to choose from.

But if nothing else, just stand outside some evening in the next weeks and look east. Even urban light pollution can't rob us of this celestial treat.

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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