Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Steamboat Springs Until recently, the bright planets Venus, Jupiter and Saturn have dominated the evening sky. Even Mercury made a brief appearance back in June. Now, only Jupiter remains to light up the night as Mercury, Venus and Saturn have quietly moved from one side of the Sun to the other and are now seen in the early morning sky. Noticeably absent during all of this activity is the planet Mars. Where has the Red Planet been hiding?
Mars has been hovering in the distance, more or less on the far side of the Sun from Earth. It's been visible in the morning sky all along as an inconspicuous little orange star, but now, it is beginning to grow in brightness as it moves away from the rising Sun and the gap between Mars and Earth shrinks during the next few months. Around Christmas of this year, Mars will become a beautiful, red ember, glowing in our evening sky when it reaches its closest point to Earth, called opposition.
This month, Mars is seen against the stars of the constellation Taurus, rising in the east around two o'clock in the morning. It's easy to spot as it passes between the beautiful Pleiades star cluster and the bright orange star Aldebaran, marking the eye of Taurus the Bull. On the morning of Aug. 19, Mars will pair up with Aldebaran forming two bright orange eyeballs staring down at us. Take this opportunity to compare the light from Mars with the light from Aldebaran to test the rule of thumb that stars twinkle and planets don't.
On Aug. 4, the Phoenix spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral for an eight-month journey to Mars. It will land there next May and explore the region around the north polar ice cap in search of underground ice. Most of the white ice that we see at the Martian poles is frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, but scientists suspect a vast amount of water ice lies just below the red surface. If so, Phoenix should find it.
Finally, you might have received an e-mail recently exclaiming that Mars will become as big and bright as the full moon in our sky this August. Don't believe it. This is the same Mars hoax that has been cycling through the Internet for the past four years. Mars will never be visible from Earth as anything other than a bright red point of light to the unaided eye. Please don't pass this phony information along to your friends and perpetuate this hoax. Put it where it belongs, in your e-mail trash bin.
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day," Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines.