CARBONDALE — An upcoming event at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will give the public a chance to see the Red Planet up close.
On average, Mars lies about 140 million miles away. Later this month, that distance will shrink to about 35 million miles.
From 8:30 p.m. to midnight on July 27, SIU Physics and the Astronomical Association of Southern Illinois will host a Mars Opposition viewing event at the SIU farms astronomy observation area west of the campus. The event is free and open to the public.
Every two years, Mars, Earth and the sun line up in their orbits, an event called “opposition.” But the distance between the planets can vary, and this month, Mars will be at its closest — and its brightest — since 2003.
Bob Baer, staff member in the SIUC physics department and director of the Public Astronomy Program, said Mars isn’t always the most visually interesting planet; recently, a dust storm has been blurring its features.
“The interesting part to me is that we may go there someday — we already have the Curiosity Rover on it, but there’s already talk about people going there,” Baer said.
Opposition should bring the Red Planet’s surface features, including its polar icecap, into focus.
According to NASA, Mars won’t be this close again until 2287. In 2003, it made its closest approach in nearly 60,000 years.
The site at University Farms is larger and darker than the physics department’s usual observation spot on top of Neckers Building.
“When the sky’s dark you don’t get so much reflected light, so you see things a little bit better,” Baer said.
The physics department and AASI will set up several portable scopes on telescope pads. Baer said members of the general public are welcome to set up their own telescopes.
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“Most of our scopes are what’s called GoTo scopes, so they are on mounts that point at objects, they have micro-controllers on them or they’re computer controlled, and they point at objects in the sky and then track them so that you can watch for a long time without having to adjust the mount,” Baer said.
Those who attend the observation will also be able to see Venus, Saturn, Jupiter and the moon. Right now Saturn is tilted so that its rings are visible, and at least one of Saturn’s moons will be visible.
“The most exciting one, though, is Jupiter. When you look at Jupiter, you can see banding on the planet itself, and what I mean by that is it almost looks like different color striations in rock or something, but what you’re actually seeing is the atmosphere — you’re seeing the different colors in the atmosphere,” Baer said.
Viewers will be able to discern the Great Red Spot, a storm that has been raging in Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere for hundreds of years, along with four of the Galilean moons.
“Those moons rotate around Jupiter rather quickly, so throughout a night you can sometimes see the moons either go in front of or behind Jupiter, and when they go in front of it you can see the shadow of the moon on the surface of the planet,” Baer said.
Baer said another crowd favorite is Earth’s moon, which will be full the night of the observation.
“When it comes out, with even a small telescope you can see real high detail in the craters of the moon, and people can look at that for a long time,” Baer said.
Organizers will set up a cell phone adapter on one of the telescopes so that participants can take pictures of the moon as keepsakes.
Stargazers should dress for the weather and bring bug spray. The event is family friendly. Participants are welcome to bring their own lawn chairs.
“If it gets clouded out, there’s not much we can do about it. If it’s a clear night, awesome. So people should keep the weather in mind,” Baer said.