Wednesday, 19 September 2018

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Super Mars is coming!

By Alastair Brickell - the owner of Stargazers Astronomy Tours in Kuaotunu

This week we are all being treated to a rare planetary event in our skies. Mars, which has been steadily getting closer to the earth, will be at its closest and brightest since 2003. Keen skywatchers may have already noticed Mars gradually getting brighter and brighter in the late evening sky. The planet is unmistakable with its distinctly pinkish colour and has almost doubled in brightness since late June.

About every two years Mars is at its closest to the sun and if this occurs when it is also close to the earth, as it is this week, then we all get a treat. I call this a “Super Mars” and it really is much more rare and significant than the “Super Moons” we often hear about. 

Being close to the sun unfortunately also means that Mars’ atmosphere heats up considerably and once again this warmth has caused a dust storm on the planet. It started in early June and within three weeks became a planet-wide event turning Mars’ daytime into twilight. Consequently the rover “Opportunity,” which has been happily running around on Mars since 2004, has quite probably died. Its solar panels have become coated in dust and this, combined with the reduced brightness of the sun, has meant it can only generate a very small amount of power. The delicate electronics on the rover need this power to keep them from freezing up.   

Despite having an atmosphere consisting of 950,000 ppm CO2, compared to Earth’s measely 400 ppm, the temperature on Mars is similar to what we experience in Antarctica, getting down to minus 130°C. However, this is not a problem for the much larger and newer rover “Curiosity,” which is doing just fine as it does not rely on solar panels for electricity and heating since it is nuclear powered.

This coming weekend, Mars will outshine everything else in the night sky apart from the Moon and Venus and will not be this bright again until 2035. Already some surface markings and the south polar ice cap can be seen in a big telescope. 

Jupiter has also been in the news this week as an additional 10 moons have just been discovered orbiting around it, bringing the total number of its moons to 79. Every astronomy textbook in the world is now out of date!

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