Red planet redux


IT'S CAPTURED the imagination since the time of the Egyptians, who called the wandering "star" Har decher, the Red One. The Greeks and Romans, inspired by that distinctive bloody hue, named it after their gods of war.
As with most of the planets' names, the Romans had their way.

While Mars is perhaps the most intriguing planet, most thanks to  its prominence in fiction and movies, it's not usually an impressive object to the naked eye. While its rusty orange colour is eye-catching, it's a small planet and must be relatively close to the Earth to be bright enough to really stand out.

At about 6,800 kilometres in diameter, the rocky planet is only half the size of Earth. So even during close approaches, you need a good-sized telescope to make out specific features.Unlike Venus or the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn,  Mars doesn't have clouds in its atmosphere to reflect light back to observers on Earth.

But when it does get close enough, such as in 2001 and 2003, it's a a beautifully eerie sight.
A red filter on the telescope helps to bring out more detail.  And, as with any planetary observation, you should wait until Mars is high in the sky. Air currents near the horizon blur the image of any astronomical object.

Mars put on a fairly average show in 2013 and having moved into the constellation Pisces, it's now lost in the glare of the sun. Next year, our rocky neighbour will return to our evening sky, this time in the constellation Virgo.