Enjoy a bright view of Mars while you can

This image provided by NASA shows a panoramic view from NASA\'s Mars Exploration rover Opportunity of "Solander Point." The space agency said Friday June 7, 2013, the six-wheel, solar-powered rover is driving to a new spot in Endeavour Crater after spending 20 months at a site brimming with evidence of water-altered rocks. Opportunity began the trip to its next destination, Solander Point, several weeks ago so that it can be in place well before the next Martian winter. (AP Photo/NASA)

WASHINGTON — I will be heading out to sea on Monday, April 7 from Miami to Barcelona, Spain aboard Oceania Cruises’ ms Riviera for a 14-day transatlantic cruise.

I look forward to this voyage, as I’ll have some very interesting astronomical events to share with guests at our nightly star parties — Mars at its closest to Earth, and a total lunar eclipse.

I will have a column on these events next weekend.

You have to get out and see Mars; it’s the brightest we’ve seen the Red Planet in 6 1/2 years, since December 2007. Mars dominates the sky in the southeast (mid- latitudes Northern Hemisphere) right after sunset, starting on the 8th when the Sun, Earth and Mars are in a single line as seen from the Sun. This is called opposition.

Mars will get brighter until April 14, when it will be closest to our planet.

After that, Mars will remain at about the same brightness for the rest of April as it retreats from us. If you have a telescope of any size, now is the time to get it out and look at the Red Planet. In a telescope four inches or larger, Mars will reveal some detail of its surface and polar cap. It takes practice, a quality instrument and good atmospheric conditions to see anything on Mars, but now is the time to try.

Binoculars will enhance the color and brightness of Mars, so if you have a pair, get them out to see the Red Planet at this special time. You can also get a picture of Mars if you try. Putting your camera on a tripod will allow for a better picture, and exposures of several seconds at ISO 400 to 800 will bring out the orangish-rust color of Mars. If you take a wide angle pic, you will get the icy blue colored star Spica in the frame, which will make a neat color contrast.

Weather and schedule have prevented me from seeing Mars in my telescope. But I have never seen Mars at sea when at opposition. So I am really hoping for clear skies in Bermuda, as Mars peeks above the horizon to get a possible once in a lifetime picture that I can share with you.

You can get a closer view of the Red Planet by going to NASA’s mission sites for rovers Opportunity and Curiosity and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The various color pictures will show you why Mars has the color it does.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently commented that NASA wants to “put boots on the ground” – a manned mission to Mars – and stay there. NASA is building the next generation of spacecraft and rockets to get us there as well as the Moon and asteroids.

Enjoy your view of Mars as it beckons humanity to go there.

Follow my daily blog to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. You can email me at skyguyinva@gmail.com.

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