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Astro Bob: Brilliant Mars beams brightest and closest Wednesday night, Nov. 30

The Red Planet is only 50.6 million miles away — almost walking distance! It won't get this close again until May 2031.

Mars Nov 22 2022
Through a telescope Mars reveals dark markings across its desert-like surface. The largest of them are readily visible in a small telescope. The white haze at the bottom of the planet in this photo taken on Nov. 22 is a cap of clouds called the North Polar Hood. The hood hides the icy North Polar Cap from view. South direction is up.
Contributed / Efrain Morales
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There's no denying that Mars is now one of the brightest lights in the night sky. Only Jupiter and the moon exceed it. The Red Planet shines from Taurus the Bull. Rising shortly after sunset in the northeastern sky, Mars clears the treetops around 7 p.m. local time, shining with a powerful, fiery light in the company of another orange-red luminary, the star Aldebaran.

Mars and Winter Hexagon
Mars is seen on Nov. 26 within the Winter Hexagon across from Aldebaran and directly above the bright red star Betelgeuse in Orion. All eight objects shine at 1st magnitude or brighter and really pack a visual punch. In late November and early December the entire Hexagon clears the horizon around 11 p.m. local time. By mid-December it's out by 10 p.m.
Contributed / Bob King

Mars also joins Betelgeuse inside the scintillating Winter Hexagon, a gigantic, six-sided asterism comprised of the brightest stars of the season: Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Capella and Aldebaran. That's a lot of firepower in just one slice of sky!

At magnitude -1.8, the Red Planet is even brighter than Sirius, the night sky's brightest star. About every 26 months, the faster Earth catches up to slowpoke Mars and passes it at opposition, the time when the two planets are closest. As the name implies, Mars appeared directly opposite the sun in the sky that evening, rising at sunset and shining the entire night. That happened on Dec. 8. Since then we've been slowly parting ways but will remain close (and Mars stunningly bright) for the next couple months.

Earth's orbit is nearly circular, but Mars revolves around the sun on a more elliptical orbit, which looks something like a squashed circle. When the two planets line up at opposition, sometimes Mars sits at the far end of that ellipse so it's more distant from the Earth. Other times it's on the near end, so the two planets get especially close.

Mars sketch better Nov 22 2022 am.JPG
I used colored pencils to make this sketch of Mars as seen through a 15-inch telescope at 357x in the early morning hours of Nov. 23, 2022. The air had settled nicely, giving sharp views. Martian surface features aren't necessarily distinct land forms but rather differences in contrast due to variations in dust cover across its surface. South direction is up.
Contributed / Bob King

This opposition is smack in the middle, neither close nor far, but it's the closest the two planets will get until May 2031 — all the more reason to get outside and enjoy the sight of this little but bigly-bright red orb.

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Mars is truly small. With a diameter of just 4,212 miles (6,780 km) it's just twice the moon's size. That's why you'll need a telescope that can magnify at least 75x so you can poke around on its surface in search of dark markings and the bright cloud cap known as the North Polar Hood. The higher the magnification the better. I've found that a red filter greatly helps to improve the contrast of surface features as well as to "calm" the image and tame glare.

Mars map
This map of Mars shows features visible in amateur telescopes. Their names are taken from ancient history and mythology. The most prominent dark marking is Syrtis Major (shaped like the Indian subcontinent). South is up.
Contributed / Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO)

Mars is something of a rarity as the only planet with a plainly visible surface. All the rest are covered in clouds except for Mercury, which is so small and close to the sun it's next to impossible to discern anything more than its changing phases.

Keep an eye on the Red Planet, and you'll see something a little peculiar. Normally, planets travel from west to east across the sky as they orbit the sun. That's exactly what Mars was doing a few months ago before it slowed down, stopped and then reversed direction. It's now moving to the west in retrograde motion and will continue to do so until early January, when stops once again and then turns back east.

Mars retrograde
As the faster Earth overtakes Mars around opposition, the Red Planet appears to slow down and then move in reverse (westward) across the sky before resuming its normal or prograde motion. If you note the position of Mars in relation to stars near it and observe it once a week, you'll see this loop with you own eyes.
Contributed / Socrates Linardos CC SA 4.0 International with additions by Bob King

Appearance aside, Mars isn't actually stopping and switching directions. That would be catastrophic! Instead, we're seeing what happens when the faster planet (Earth) laps the slower one. When you pass a slower car on the freeway you move into the left lane and accelerate. As you do, the car you're passing appears to travel backwards and recede behind you. That's exactly what's happening with Mars. We're passing it, so it temporarily appears to slide backwards in the sky.

Mars and Winter Hexagon
Retrograding Mars will appear over Aldebaran by late December, turning the Winter Hexagon into a 7-sided heptagon.
Contributed / Stellarium

If you check on Mars once a week, you'll clearly see it retrograde to the west. By the end of December it will shine directly atop Aldebaran and add an extra side to the Winter Hexagon, making it a Winter Heptagon. Nice work, Mars!

Read more from Astro Bob
Our February event calendar highlights Comet ZTF and Mars, Venus and Jupiter at dusk and a stellar reminder of spring.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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