By Dr. Ed Albin
Program Director, Space Studies, American Military University
Featured in this week’s article is an image of Mars taken on the morning of August 2. A 14-inch Celestron telescope captured the digital photograph from my personal observatory, located in Crawfordville, Georgia.
The property sits in the middle of a community of stargazers, a place we call the Deerlick Astronomy Village. Situated about 110 miles east of Atlanta, Deerlick is in the least populous county in Georgia, accounting for very dark skies where the Milky Way shines bright on clear, moonless nights.
In October Mars Will Put on a Wonderful Show in the Evening Sky
Throughout October, Mars will put on a wonderful show in the evening sky that you will not want to miss. No telescope is required since novice stargazers can see the planet with the naked eye. Look for Mars as a very bright object in the eastern sky, rising at sunset and then climbing high overhead by midnight.
To ancient Greek skywatchers, because of its bloody red color, Mars was their god of war or Ares. Most observers see its color as more of a peachy orange-red, so we observers here in Georgia (known as the Peach State) often call Mars the Peach Planet.
Mars reaches a unique point in its orbit on October 13, when it is at a position in its orbit called opposition, where the Earth is between Mars and the Sun. Although not rare, such a close encounter with our neighboring planet happens once every 780 days. It is at this time that the Red Planet is closest to us – approximately only 39 million miles away.
Of All the Planets, Mars Is More Like Earth Than Any Other in Our Solar System
Of all the planets, Mars is more like Earth than any other in our solar system. Although it is but half the diameter of our Blue Planet, it has the distinction of having an atmosphere with subsurface water ice as well as icy polar caps. Planetary scientists believed that in its early history Mars was a warmer and wetter planet than it is today, and perhaps even a place where life could have taken hold.
Today, however, Mars is a very different world than it was eons ago. Astronomers know that it is a cold desert, where a very thin veneer of an atmosphere filled with dusty particles gives its sky an alien pink color. When astronauts travel to Mars, they will have to wear spacesuits because of the thin Martian air and the fact that its atmosphere consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide.
Even so, the Red Planet is a place of wonder in our grand solar system. It sports mountains larger than those found on Earth; for instance, its largest volcano, Olympus Mons, towers three times the height of Mount Everest and is wider than the state of Georgia.
Mars has the grandest of canyons, Valles Mariners, which dwarfs our own earthly Grand Canyon. If it were on Earth it would extend from New York City to Los Angeles.
These wonders on this neighboring world have inspired humanity to reach beyond the moon. At this moment, there is a magnificent space probe on its way to Mars, the Perseverance Rover. Scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet in February 2021, It will be the most sophisticated of rovers ever sent to another world.
A counterpart called Curiosity has been roving about the surface of Mars over the past five years. Such robotic probes are the precursors to human explorers.
Returning to my image of Mars, you can see distant vistas that will undoubtedly be explored by future astronauts. On the image, the light-colored large circular area, just left of center, is Hellas Basin. The feature is one of the largest impact craters ever mapped.
A dark triangular wedge-shaped feature known as Syrtis Major is just above this basin. It is an area of Mars covered by dark volcanic lava flows. Finally, the South Polar ice cap is clearly visible at the bottom of the planet.
SpaceX Has the Goal of Sending Humans to Mars within Our Lifetime
Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s very successful SpaceX Company has the goal of sending humans to Mars within our lifetime. Now building huge rockets in Florida and Texas, SpaceX’s goal is human colonization of Mars. Designed to carry 100 colonists at a time to Mars, Musk’s giant rockets are set to be the first planetary transportation system.
Humans are going to go to another world to stay and to live off the land. Perhaps our very own Space Studies students will join these early pioneers. If so, they will ultimately become the first true Martians.
About the Author
Dr. Ed Albin is an Associate Professor and Program Director of Space Studies in the School of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at American Military University. His academic credentials include a Ph.D. in Planetary Geology from the University of Georgia, an M.S. in Geology from Arizona State University and a B.S. in Earth Science from Columbus State University. Ed has also held positions as an assistant professor, a planetarium lecturer, a commercial helicopter pilot and a planetary geologist.