Mars as Big as the Full Moon – But Only on Internet

   Tuesday July 31st the outer planet Mars will be at its closest to the Earth – this time around. Coincidentally this is 4 days after Mars was at opposition, and about 3 weeks after Earth was at aphelion. However this is not the closest Mars has been from the Earth. The closest, so far, was during August 2003.

A Martian Urban Legend
   “This year, during August, Mars will be at its closest to the Earth; so close, in fact, that it will appear as large as the full Moon.”
   Have you heard this urban legend before? Since 2003, emails describing this myth have circulated the internet usually during July or August. It all started during the opposition of August 2003 when Mars was about as close as it can ever be to the Earth (55,755,723 km – 34,645,000 miles) in a 20-year cycle of varying distances at opposition. Since then, usually around August, misinformation about the appearance of Mars circulates around the internet.

   In the time that it takes the Earth to catch up with and move into an opposition position, the outer planets have also been moving eastward relative to the stars in the background. Over time, the constellation where the outer planet is located during opposition and its retrograde loop gradually shift to the east. An opposition is also near the time when the distance between the Earth and an outer planet is around the minimum distance. Keep in mind that because the shape of the orbit is elliptical, this minimum distance will be different each time.

   However, there is an even more conclusive way to show that Mars could never be so close that it would appear as large as the Moon. To see how requires and some basic arithmetic. You will see that Mars could not appear to be as large as our Moon unless some force somehow caused Mars to change its orbital position and literally move closer to Earth.

   On July 31st, Mars will be 57,595,180 km (35,787,986 miles) from Earth. Mars is 6,792 km (4,220 mi.) in diameter. The Moon is 3,475 km (2,159 mi.) in diameter and is an average 384,400 km (238,900 mi.) from Earth. In terms of apparent size our Moon has an angular diameter of 0.5o (30 arc minutes or 1800 arc seconds), while on July 31st Mars has an apparent diameter of 24 arc seconds.
    So with the following calculation using those values (24 / 1800) x 100% = 1.3%) Mars is only 1.3% the apparent size of our Moon.

   Another method to calculate how large Mars will appear as compared to the Moon:
   (Mars’s diameter ÷ Mars’s distance) ÷ (Moon’s diameter ÷ Moon’s distance)

         (4220 / 35787986) / (2159 / 238900) = 0.013 = 1.3%
    In other words, Mars on 31 July will be only 1.3% of the apparent size of the Moon.

   
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.

   
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Mars at Opposition – 2018

Mars at Opposition   Friday July 27th Mars will reach a point in its orbit around the Sun where it is at opposition relative to the Earth. at opposition The Earth is between the Sun and Mars, or any of the outer planets. At opposition both the Earth and the planet at opposition will have near identical heliocentric longitude. The opposition of Mars sometimes happens around the time that Mars is at its respective perihelion, closest to the Sun. If opposition happens during or near when the Earth is at its respective aphelion, furthest from the Sun, (first few days of July) then Mars will appear larger relative to when these dates are further apart.

What is opposition?
orbital-positions   The outer planets reach opposition when the Earth has moved into a position with the Sun on one side and the outer planet on the other side. Because all planets orbit in the same direction (toward the east), and all follow orbits that are slightly more elliptical than circular, oppositions occur at regular intervals of about 12 months (except for Mars). Mars is considerably closer to Earth and is moving faster than the other outer planets, so it takes approximately 26 months for Earth to catch up with Mars for an opposition.

   
   
   

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.


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Earth at Aphelion – 2018

Earth at Perihelion   Friday July 6th, as the Earth continues its annual trek around the Sun, the Earth reaches a point in its orbit that is called aphelion. Aphelion is the greatest distance that separates the Earth from the Sun, and we are the furthest from the Sun for the year at this point in the orbit. So, at 17 UT (12 pm CDT) on Friday July 6th the Earth is 1.01670 AU (94,508,169 miles; 152,096,155 km) from the Sun.
   Approximately one-half year or one-half revolution earlier, on January 3rd, the Earth was at perihelion, its minimum distance from the Sun for this year (0.98329 AU (91,402,516 miles; 147,098,090 km). This difference, about 3%, in distances is due to the shape of the Earth’s orbit being elliptical rather than circular. However the Earth has a mildly elliptically shaped orbit that is closer to being slightly out-of-round than the incorrect, very elliptical orbit that is often shown – like the illustration used here.
sun2014-ani   In Astronomy the shape of a planet’s orbit is called eccentricity, with 0 being a circle and 1 a straight line. Any value between 0 and 1 represents an ellipse. The shape of the Earth’s orbit is so close to being circular that the apparent size of the Sun does not appear to change as this animated graphic shows. The difference between perihelion and aphelion is about 3%.

   
   
   
   Eccentricity for each planet is listed below for comparison.

Planet	   Eccentricity	
Mercury	   0.2056
Venus	   0.0068
Earth	   0.0167
Mars	   0.0934
Jupiter	   0.0484
Saturn	   0.0542
Uranus	   0.0472
Neptune	   0.0086
Pluto	   0.2488

   To read more about the Earth’s orbit and get some teaching ideas click here to download a PDF copy of my January 2011 Scope on the Skies column Solar Explorations.
   

   
   
   

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.


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Jupiter So Close, but Yet So Far

   Thursday 10 May the outer giant ringed planet Jupiter will be at perihelion, its closest to the sun for this orbit. At perihelion, which coincidentally is 1 day after it was at opposition, Jupiter will be approximately 4.4 AU (658,230,631 km; 409,005,551 miles) from the Sun. With Jupiter this close to its opposition the planet will be rising at around sunset local time and will be visible during the night, and setting at around sunrise local time. Joining Jupiter in the morning skies are the planets Saturn and Mars, as well as the waning crescent Moon.

   
   
   

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.

April Moon at Ascending Node

   Monday April 23rd the waxing gibbous Moon will be crossing the plane of the ecliptic moving north relative to the ecliptic. This is known as the ascending node, one of two intersections the Moon’s orbital path has with the ecliptic. The ecliptic is actually the Earth’s orbit and the Moon’s orbit is inclined about 6o from the ecliptic. So there are two node intersections, the ascending and descending nodes.


   On Monday evening April 23rd the 8-day old waxing gibbous Moon will be within the boundaries of Leo the Lion and about 7o west (right) from the ‘Heart’ of the Lion, the star Regulus.

   Does our Moon actually go around the Earth as many graphics show? From our perspective on the Earth the Moon appears to circle around the Earth. However, in reality, the Moon orbits the Sun together with the Earth*

*Click here to read my 2006 Scope on the Sky column “The Real Shape of the Moon’s Orbit”. (PDF)

Read this very informative article about the Earth-Moon system and their orbital motions, written by Joe Hanson. “Do We Orbit the Moon?”

   
   
   

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.

A Week of Moon Conjunctions


   Over the next 7 days (mornings) the Moon, as it wanes toward last quarter, will pass closely by several planets and brights stars in some close and some not so close conjunctions.
   Perhaps the best morning will be on April 7th when the near last quarter Moon will be 1-2o from Saturn and about 4o from Mars.
All three will easily fit within the field of view of binoculars.

   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.

March Moon at Ascending Node

   Tuesday March 27th the waxing gibbous Moon will be crossing the plane of the ecliptic moving north relative to the ecliptic. This is known as the ascending node, one of two intersections the Moon’s orbital path has with the ecliptic. The ecliptic is actually the Earth’s orbit and the Moon’s orbit is inclined about 6o from the ecliptic. So there are two node intersections, the ascending and descending nodes.


   On Tuesday evening March 27th the 10.5-day old waxing gibbous Moon will be within the boundaries of Leo the Lion and about 7o west (right) from the ‘Heart’ of the Lion, the star Regulus.

   Does our Moon actually go around the Earth as many graphics show? From our perspective on the Earth the Moon appears to circle around the Earth. However, in reality, the Moon orbits the Sun together with the Earth*

*Click here to read my 2006 Scope on the Sky column “The Real Shape of the Moon’s Orbit”. (PDF)

Read this very informative article about the Earth-Moon system and their orbital motions, written by Joe Hanson. “Do We Orbit the Moon?”

   
   
   

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.