Planet Mars Astronomy, History and Mythology

The astronomy, history and mythology associated with Earth's red neighboring planet Mars, including perihelions and aphelions, a closer look at the planet, pink skies and blue sunsets.

| September/October 1988

An introduction to the planet Mars: the history, astronomy and mythology associated with Earth's red neighboring planet. (See the Mars illustrations in the image gallery.)

Planet Mars Astronomy, History and Mythology

MARS HAS ALWAYS BOTH FASCINATED and frightened mankind. History shows that Babylonian priests and Roman soldiers were intrigued by Mars. More recently, public interest has been sparked by H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan. And, in the not-too-distant future, American and Soviet space travelers may make Mars the first "fellow planet" our species has ever visited.

September 1988 provides the best opportunity in many years for a personal look at the planet. Not since 1971 has Mars been so close and bright, nor will it be again until 2003. And because our solar neighbor is far higher in the skies in 1988 than it was in 1971, this is the best time since 1954 for a telescopic look at the surface features of the red planet.

Of course, we can marvel at Mars even without a telescope. The three things that fascinated the ancients will still impress the naked-eye viewer of Mars today: the planet's color, its brightness and the tremendous way in which that brightness can increase.

How bright is Mars? At a close approach like the one this year, Mars greatly outshines all the stars. Jupiter, rising a few hours after Mars each night, is its only competition in the evening and midnight autumn sky. Mars reaches peak brilliance and outshines Jupiter in September and part of October, but then Jupiter, attaining its own maximum brightness in November, will take over and exceed Mars. But even when brighter, the almost imperceptibly yellow Jupiter is not nearly so striking as the more colorful red planet. Mars is certainly not stoplight red, but when it's very bright, its prominent deep orange hue does make the planet an imposing sight.

At Mars-rise, after 9:00 P.M. (daylight-saving time) as September begins, and after nightfall by late September and October, look due east. You'll see coming up the steady, unblinking stare of this ruddy planetary beacon that seemed to many ancient cultures to be stained with blood.

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