StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

AUGUST  2003


Print Large Sky Charts For 10 p.m. EDT:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]


362    AUGUST 3, 2003:   Start Viewing Mars Now
I have been gleefully observing the demise of a bright, orangey-yellow, high-pressure sodium vapor lamp in front of my Coopersburg home. Sputtering off only occasionally in May, the lamp currently spends more of its time dormant than active, allowing me to stargaze unhindered from my front yard for the first time. So lately during TV commercials, I've found myself wandering out-of-doors and into the flower garden, the hedge, and my sharp-needled Blue Spruce all in the name of astronomy. A brilliant, orangey, star-like object rising in my southeast after midnight has prompted these sojourns into the night. The "star" is really the planet Mars reflecting sunlight from its coppery red soil. During the next three weeks the Earth moves closer to the Red Planet, while Mars is closing on the sun. Since we pass Mars on August 28, only 42 hours before its closest approach to the sun, we are nearly sideswiping our second closest planetary neighbor by astronomical standards. We will be less than 34.6 million miles away. Certainly there is no person alive today that has ever witnessed Mars as close to the Earth as it will be in late August. But some calculations place this opposition as the closest in 10,000-70,000 years. City dwellers living in the Episcopal House and Regency Towers with a good southeastern exposure should be able to view Mars as early as 10:30 p.m. this week. Others living in the canyons of the city or in the country with wooded areas may have to wait until midnight or 1 a.m. when Mars is higher in the sky. Mars will still be relatively low in the SSE, but it will be unmistakably big, bright, and shining with a steady light. It will also have the coloration of a very distant high-pressure sodium vapor lamp. I can live with that kind of natural nightlight.
[Mars Over Wahweap]
Mars rises over Wahweap Marina near Page, Arizona on July 20, 2003. Compare the brightness of Mars to the Navajo coal power generating station nearly 10 miles away and the Marina about one block away. Mars looks like a distant high pressure sodium vapor street lamp. Kodak 290 digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

363    AUGUST 10, 2003:    Mars: Closing Fast But Low
Mars, looking like a distant orangey streetlight, rises about 9:15 p.m. this week, but it is still less than 20 degrees above the SSE horizon two hours later. By 2 a.m. Mars is due south just shy of its highest altitude, a niche over one-third of the distance from the horizon to the zenith. Mars's brightness and color will be unmistakable, and it should shine with a steadier light compared to nearby luminaries, such as Fomalhaut, the brightest star in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. Keep in mind that Mars will be over 30 times more brilliant than Fomalhaut, which will be directly below the God of War and about halfway between it and the horizon at 2 a.m. How bright is Fomalhaut? It is about double the brightness of the bright stars of the Big Dipper. Use binoculars to amplify the winking and blinking effects of Fomalhaut which result from atmospheric turbulence, pockets of heavier (denser) and lighter air moving in front of a point source of light. Mars, on the other hand, is a disk through telescopes but still star-like to the unaided eye. The moving atmosphere has less effect on disks, causing them to shimmer less. Unfortunately, the low altitude of Mars is a necessary consequence of close passages for mid-northern latitudes. The planets and the moon all circle close to the Earth's orbital plane known as the ecliptic, and the Earth's axis is tilted to the ecliptic. This results in a low Mars when it is positioned among the summer stars, just like the low altitudes of summer full moons and the winter sun. The kicker is that the location of Mars when Mars is closest to the sun and when Earth is closest to Mars also places Mars in this same late summer direction, keeping Mars always low in the sky for us when it is especially close to the Earth. See Mars near the moon on Tuesday and Wednesday after 11 p.m.
[Use the Moon to Find Mars]

364    AUGUST 17, 2003:   Kodak Moments with Mars
The excitement continues to build as Mars and the Earth approach to their closest distance in the last 10,000-70,000 years. The magic moment occurs about 4:30 a.m. EDT on the morning of August 27 according to one calculation, but I have also seen 6:00 a.m. too. However, don't think that the invading Martians will descend at that exact moment. There will not be any major difference in the way the planet will look between now and late September. Last week from the Schoodic peninsula in Down East Maine, Mars and its frequent flying companion, the moon, hung low over the serene waters of Sand Cove near Corea. An orangey beacon to the right of a nearly full moon, the shimmering moonlight over the water, and the raspy crescendo of long lines of surf were viewed with Susan, my wife, from the windows of our third floor room in the "Captain's House" of Oceanside Meadows Inn. Pictures can be found at Web StarWatch at the URL given below. Find Mars against your own favorite backdrop, and make some memories during the next few weeks while Mars is so bright. Also consider finding Mars through your telescope. Often when Mars is close to the sun, huge dust storms engulf the planet making the polar caps and other features invisible for weeks. If storms do occur, they will probably happen in September; so now is the optimum time for a close-up look. Although Mars is huge by normal standards, telescopically most observers will still think Mars looks small. Wait until Mars is high in the sky between 11:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. to lessen air turbulence. Get comfortable and just look, tweaking the focus often. Every couple of minutes, the atmosphere will become steadier revealing the South Polar Cap and other contrast features. Good observing!
[Oceanside Meadows Inn]
Our third floor room at Oceanside Meadows Inn near Corea, Maine provided an excellent vantage point for my wife and I to view Mars. Kodak 290 digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

[Mars at Oceanside Meadows]
Above: Mars is visible from Sand Cove at Oceanside Meadows Inn near Corea, Maine shortly after midnight on Thursday, August 14th. The moon, to the left of Mars, was nearly full.
Below: Mars is framed between the branches of a giant elm tree that was probably growing when the Captain's House at Oceanside Meadows Inn was built in 1843. Kodak 290 digital photography by Gary A. Becker...
[Mars at Oceanside Meadows]

365    AUGUST 24, 2003:   Mars Moonwalking
This week marks the peak of Mars's brightness. At dawn Wednesday, the distance between Earth and Mars will have narrowed to a scant 34.65 million miles, the closest approach between these two planets in recorded history and perhaps even for Homo sapiens. It's nice to know that we are indeed setting a record, just like we did in the spring of 1996 when Comet Hale-Bopp graced our skies, the brightest comet seen for the longest period of time in recorded history. While Mars shines so luminously, the planet is also performing a tight little twirl in the sky. It is moonwalking, moving backwards in its dance. Astronomically speaking, this is called retrograde motion, and it results when a faster orbiting object, in this case the Earth, overtakes and passes a slower moving world like Mars. Mars requires two years to complete one solar orbit. As we wheel around the sun, we see Earth's motion reflected in the movement of the sun and planets against the starry heavens. Looking down from space, we depict Earth orbiting the sun in a counterclockwise direction. As a result, we see the sun and planets move against the stars from west to east or from left to right, i.e., counterclockwise if you are facing south. When the faster moving Earth catches up to and passes a slower moving planet, such as Mars, Mars will appear to shift backwards against the stars, just like the individuals in a faster moving car passing a slower moving vehicle will witness the slower vehicle traveling backwards relative to their own motion. Mars has been retrograding since July 31 and will continue to do so until September 29. Use binoculars and the map found at this week's Web StarWatch at the URL below to follow Mars's retrograde loop throughout late August and September.
[Mars REtrogrades]
[Mars Locator]
Mars dominates the late August sky after 10 p.m. On the morning of August 27 between 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. EDT Mars may be closer to the Earth than at anytime in the last 10,000-70,000 years. On August 27 you should be able to view Mars low in the WSW as late as 5:15 a.m. from the East Coast.
[Mars Photo Locator]
This is what it actually looked like about five hours before closest approach. Compare this digital image taken with an Olympus E20N camera to the star map that can be found above. Mars appears white because it is overexposed. The picture was also color corrected during the one-minute exposure to take away the orangey sky background caused by high-pressure sodium vapor streetlights. Gary A. Becker photography...

366a  AUG. 31 - SEPT. 4, 2003:   Mars Through a Telescope
Usually as the school year approaches, I try to get to bed a little earlier, but clear nights and Mars have made me throw all caution to the wind. After all, will any of us ever get to observe Mars as big, bright, and splendid as it is right now? The answer is no. So over the past week, I have been pointing my telescopes towards that red beauty in the south. If you'd like to do the same, here are a few observing tips you may want to consider. Start by centering Mars in your finder, that is, the smaller telescope attached to the main scope. If the two telescopes are pointing in the same direction, you should be able to go from the finder to the main scope without difficulty. Use your longest focal length (fl) eyepiece for the main telescope. The greater the fl, the lower the magnification. This will give you the widest possible field of view. Center Mars in the main scope, then center Mars in the finder telescope. You are now ready to recover Mars easily if you bump your scope. Get comfortable. A chair or small stepladder is a wonderful accessory. Focus the image carefully. If Mars appears star-like, center the image and go to a smaller fl eyepiece. Every time the fl is halved, the magnification is doubled, but the field of view and image brightness are quartered. While you are watching Mars, you will be busy keeping the image centered and focused because the Earth and the air are in continuous motion. The key is patience. During moments of steadier air, Mars will stop wavering or bubbling. Its pinkish-orange disk will snap to focus. Over the past weeks, I have seen structure in the South Polar Cap and dusky markings over most of Mars's surface. The ground markings are much more difficult to see, but they appear easiest just northward of the cap.

366b  SEPTEMBER 5-8, 2003:    Dieruff Mars Watch
The public is invited to participate in a free Mars watch to be hosted at Dieruff High School in the upper main parking lot along N. Irving Street, Monday evening, September 8, between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. The cloud or rain date will occur at the same times on the following evening, September 9. Telescopes will be available, especially designed to look at the planets and the moon which will also be close to the Red Planet making for some exciting views. Uranus and Neptune will also be nearby. The public is encouraged to bring along their own telescopes and binoculars so that more individuals can enjoy magnified images. Check after 7 p.m. on Monday/Tuesday for a go/no go message on the front page. Directions to Dieruff High School can be found at Telescopes will be set up between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. If you're bringing equipment, please contact the ASD Planetarium-484-765-5557 and arrive by 8 p.m. to obtain parking near your scope. Everyone should be carrying a flashlight. Dress for colder conditions than expected, making sure your head, hands, and feet remain warm. Layer your garments so that you can add or remove thinner articles of clothing without sweating or getting cold. If the sky is radiantly clear, the temperature could dip into the mid-50s. Telescopically, it will not be difficult to observe the South Polar Cap as a white glimmering speck of light. With careful focusing of the telescope, Martian ground features should become visible in the Southern Hemisphere where it is springtime and winds, generated by daytime heating, are blowing away lighter colored red sand from grayer basaltic rocks. See you at the Mars Watch!
[The Martians Have Arrived]
The Martians Have Arrived: From left to right are Dieruff students Emily Plessl, Sarabeth Brockley, Abdiel Cancel (class of 2003), Chris Fernandes, and Gary A. Becker, ASD Planetarium director, who are ready to help make your Mars Watch truly memorable. G. A. Becker digital photo...

August Star Map

August Moon Phase Calendar