Updated Aug. 26, 2010
If you're like me, you may have received an e-mail this summer telling you to go outside on August 27 and look up in the sky. The e-mail, most likely forwarded to you by a friend or relative, promises that Mars will look as big as the moon on that date and that no one will ever see this view again. Hmmm, it looks like the same e-mail I received last summer and the summer before that, too. In fact this same e-mail has been circulating since 2003, but with a few important omissions from the original announcement.
I'm Jane Jones, an amateur astronomer and outreach specialist for the Cassini mission at Saturn, and I'm here to set the record straight on when and how you can actually see Mars this month.
1. How did the "Mars in August" e-mail get started in the first place?
In 2003, when Mars neared opposition -- its closest approach to Earth in its 22-month orbit around the sun -- it was less than 56 million kilometers (less than 35 million miles) away. This was the closest it had been in over 50,000 years. The e-mail that circulated back then said that Mars, when viewed through a telescope magnified 75 times, would look as large as the moon does with the unaided eye. Even back in 2003, to the unaided eye, Mars looked like a reddish star in the sky to our eyes, and through a backyard telescope it looked like a small disc with some dark markings and maybe a hint of its polar ice cap. Without magnification, it never looked as large as the moon, even back in 2003!
2. Can the moon and Mars ever look the same size?
No. The moon is one-quarter the size of Earth and is relatively close -- only about 384,000 kilometers (about 239, 000 miles) away. On the other hand, Mars is one-half the size of Earth and it orbits the sun 1-1/2 times farther out than Earth's orbit. The closest it ever gets to Earth is at opposition every 26 months. The last Mars opposition was in January and the next one is in March 2011.
At opposition, Mars will be 101 million kilometers (63 million miles) from Earth, almost twice as far as in 2003. So from that distance, Mars could never look the same as our moon.
3. Is Mars visible in August 2010?
Mars and Saturn made a dramatic trio with brighter Venus this month. Skywatchers enjoyed seeing the three planets closely gathered on the 12th and 13th with the slender crescent moon nearby. On the 27th, you'll see Venus shining brightly in the west. If you look above Venus, you may find faint Mars. Saturn is barely visible above the horizon, getting ready for its solar conjunction next month.
4. Can I see Mars and the moon at the same time this month?
Both the moon and Mars were next to one another on the 12th and 13th, but now you can see both planets a few hours apart. Look for Mars in the west at sunset, and watch the moon rise in the east a few hours later. On August 26th and 27th you can see the nearly full moon rising in the east at about 10 p.m. The bright planet below the moon on the 26th is Jupiter! On the 27th, the moon is to the left of the planet.