See my main Mars page for information about the current opposition, and a much more current list of Mars links.
If you're here because you're excited about NASA's Spirit rover and you want to learn more about Mars, be sure to take a look at The Nine Planets. Of course, you're welcome here as well!
This page describes the 2003 opposition of Mars, the closest opposition in 73,000 years (or maybe 59,604 years, depending how how you calculate it; both of those numbers come from different calculations by Jean Meeus). At its closest approach, Mars will be 34,646,418 miles (55,758,006 km) from the earth.
Closest approach is at 9:51am UT (2:51 am PDT) on Aug. 27, 2003.
Perihelion (Mars' closest approach to the sun) happens 32 hours later.
Near opposition, Mars will have an angular diameter of 25.1" (comparable to Jupiter), vs. 14" at aphelic oppositions. Brightness will also be comparable to Jupiter's brightest, at magnitude -2.9. Observers in Northern California will see Mars transit about 37 degrees above the southern horizon. (Observers farther south will get better views, with Mars higher in the sky.)
Throughout the opposition, Mars' southern hemisphere will be tilted toward us. The southern spring equinox (with the southern polar cap at its maximum size) happens on May 6, and southern summer solstice is September 29. We should be able to see good detail (with the disk 20" or larger) from mid-July through early October. Supposedly, the risk of major dust storms, like the one that ruined the detail for the opposition two years ago, is low in this season. Let's hope!
Astronomy magazine has a good timeline for the 2003 opposition.
If you have questions on observing Mars, or answers which you think belong in a FAQ, please mail.
Note that the month or so after the opposition is also a good time to observe; although the planet will be starting to recede, it will be rising earlier in the evening than at opposition, which makes it easier for most people to observe it when it's high in the sky.
Q. What sort of equipment do I need to look at Mars?
A. Just about any telescope will do. I've seen some detail on Mars, during the 1997 opposition, with my 4.25" f/4 reflector, though that's certainly not an ideal planetary telescope. A good 6" f/8 reflector or 4" refractor should show a lot of Mars detail if the air is steady and if the telescope is in good collimation. I've also gotten excellent views of Mars through big dobsonian reflectors: although a clock drive is convenient for high magnification observations, don't let that stop you if you happen to have a dob. In 2003 I've done most of my observing so far with my homebuilt 8" dobsonian.
Binoculars won't show you any more than you see with the naked eye: just a bright red point.
Steady air and magnification are more important than telescope aperture, ultimately; you'll have the best luck when Mars is high in the sky, and it may help to find a location at high elevation or at least one where you're not looking over houses, cars or asphalt.
Q. Do I need filters to observe Mars?
A. No, but they can sometimes help in bringing out detail. They're especially helpful if you have an inexpensive refractor which has some chromatic aberration (meaning that it shows some colored fringes around bright objects): filters can dramatically cut down the color fringing. See specifics on the ALPO page.
Q. What can I see with a small telescope?
A. Hellas (a bright impact basin), some dark features like Syrtis Major, Mare Erythraeum, Mare Acidalium, and Niliacus Lacus, more subtle dark features like Margaritifer Sinus, Sinus Sabaeus, Lacus Solis (the "Eye of Mars"), and polar caps (in 2003, mostly the southern polar cap, which has a nice dark ring around it and ragged edges).
With filters, you can sometimes see clouds and hazes of various types. With exceptional seeing, there are many other light and dark features which become visible, and you can look for details on the edges of the features, and for clouds over the Tharsis volcanos. You may even see parts of Valles Marineris, near Lacus Solis.
Sorry, you won't see canals -- there aren't any. But there's plenty of other stuff to look at!
Q: Why can't I see anything at all?
A: Mars is small. Really small. The details are smaller still. You really have to practice and have patience. The details will come, but don't expect them to be easy. Try for the polar cap first: that's usually the easiest to see. Then try to see some dark markings on the planet. The more you observe the planet, the more you'll learn how to see the detail on it.
Q. How can I train my observing skills?
A. Observe a lot -- start well before the opposition if you can, even if Mars is small or low in the sky. That way, by opposition you'll be ready to see all the detail which is there.
Also, try sketching the detail that you see -- even if you don't consider yourself an artist (I'm certainly not), sketching planetary detail really helps you think about what you're seeing, as well as being fun in its own right.
Q. How do I figure out what part of the planet I'm looking at
and how it's oriented at the time when I'm looking?
A. That's one of the tricky parts of observing Mars, especially during this opposition when the polar cap is expected to be inconspicuous.
One way is to use a Mars globe, if you can find one (see the Links section for some suggestions).
The other, and easier, method of orientation is to use a computer program. See the software links below for programs which show Mars rotated correctly for a particular time and date.
Q. Can I see Mars' moons?
A. The moons should, in theory, be visible in large amateur telescopes (say, a 10" or so), but they're quite difficult due to their closeness to the high surface brightness image of Mars. Phobos is brighter, but Deimos is farther from Mars. It helps to move Mars just out of the field, or to use an "occulting bar" in the eyepiece to block out the brightness of Mars. It's a challenge, but it's definitely possible!
... Mars Links ...