Astronomy EssentialsToday's Image

Mars’ gala summer has ended

View full-sized image. | Project Nightflight released this photo on September 2, 2018. It shows Mars in mid-August. The Project Nightflight team – Karoline Mrazek and Erwin Matys – photographed Mars with a DSLR, a 50mm lens and a diffusion filter to render the planet’s orange-red color as naturally as possible, from the Grossmugl Star Walk in Austria. Read more about this image.

If you follow the night sky, you know that Mars – the world next-outward from Earth in orbit around the sun – has been spectacularly bright these past two months.

Earth flew between the sun and Mars on July 27; Mars was closest to us on the night of July 30-31. We go between the sun and Mars about every two years, bringing Mars to what astronomers call opposition, where Mars appears opposite the sun in our sky. So opposition is not an usual event for Mars. But the 2018 martian opposition was the peak of a 15-year cycle of the red planet, whereby the planet was closer and brighter than since 2003.

These recent months of 2018 were, it seems, a time of lucky sky events. On the night of Mars’ opposition, July 27, we also had the longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century, with Mars nearby.

Nima Asadzadeh wrote: “Here’s a photo sequence of the total lunar eclipse taken from Nandal, northern area of Mount Damavand, Iran. This sequence includes 54 frames, which were layered to show partial phases of totality. Camera not moved through the entire sequence.” The movement, of course, is from Earth’s rotation. The object below the eclipsed moon is Mars. Thanks, Nima!

I’m not normally one for superlatives, but wow! It was supremely lucky to see Mars at its best, so near the moon in total eclipse. But that’s not all.

Throughout these past months, we’ve seen not one but four bright planets arcing across our evening sky. From west to east, they are Venus (brightest), Jupiter (usually second-brightest but bested by Mars in July and August, 2018), Saturn (visible against the star-rich sky background in the direction toward our Milky Way galaxy’s center) and, of course, Mars at its best.

The view has been amazing, in short. I hope you’ve seen and enjoyed it!

You can still see all four of these planets, by the way, in September, 2018: here’s how.

Nikolaos Pantazis in Greece caught all 4 planets on September 1, 2018. He wrote: “Four bright planets may be seen in this wide angle view of the night sky, over mountain Chelmos, northern Peloponnisos, Greece. From left to right, they are Mars, Saturn (‘inside’ the Milky Way) Jupiter and Venus (just above the horizon).” Thank you, Nikolaos.
AstroLina Photography in Antarctica calls this image Planetas (Planets). He captured the arc of planets in the evening sky now by combining 21 photos into this beautiful composite. Mars is the bright object at the lower left. Read more about this image. Thank you, AstroLina Photography!

What will happen with Mars now? The answer is always the same for Mars, in the months following its opposition. Earth rushes ahead in our smaller, faster orbit around the sun, leaving Mars behind. The distance between our two worlds becomes larger, and larger. Mars grows dim. As it does so, whenever Earth is speeding ahead in orbit, Mars shifts westward across our sky, appearing a bit farther west with each new nightfall. Mars never becomes invisible to the eye (unless it’s behind the sun). But it can be very, very dim for months on end. That time is coming for Mars. By the year’s end, you might not notice it.

The EarthSky community, as always, has supplied us with wonderful images of these events; we’re grateful to all who submitted photos.

Don Mills wrote from Wildwood, New Jersey: “While on vacation here, we saw the last fireworks display for the season and I captured some exploding shells over the beach with planet Mars as the bright speck to the left.” Thank you, Don!

Bottom line: A last few images of a very bright Mars, from the EarthSky Community. We won’t see Mars this bright again for another 15 years!

See more photos: Moon sweeps past Mars

See more photos: Mars, the moon and a bottle rocket

See more photos: Parade of moon and planets

Read more: Mars brighter in 2018 than since 2003

September 3, 2018
Astronomy Essentials

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Deborah Byrd

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