Mars Commands Attention in Space and on Earth

Clear SkiesBy Scott Levine

A few months ago, we talked about the endless pleasure of seeing Mars, bright and red like a planet full of rusted fence posts from more than a hundred million miles away. The clouds have been heavy this winter, and it’s been difficult to find the time to see the fourth rock from the sun.

Since then, three space probes have joined the list of spacecrafts exploring there. On Feb. 9, the Hope probe entered orbit and became the first probe from the United Arab Emirates to reach Mars. It was followed the next day by China’s Tianwen-1. Just last week NASA’s Perseverance rover landed and joined its cousin, Curiosity, which has been exploring there since 2012.

Other than the moon and Earth, Mars is probably the most explored object in our solar system. NASA’s Mariner 4 probe flew past it in 1964. Over 30 spacecraft have made it to Mars in one form or another. Ten are still operating there.

Traveling in space is hard, and it’s always exciting when scientists and engineers manage to get a robot to another world. Perseverance is particularly exciting because it’s not alone. It’s bringing along the small Ingenuity helicopter, which will fly through Mars’s thin atmosphere and help scout places to explore.

Imagine that for a minute: people have built a rover from scratch, strapped it to the top of a missile and sent it off to a blank spot in space so that it could meet up with another planet that wasn’t anywhere nearby when it launched – and that rover is bringing its own helicopter with it.

moon phasesIf it all works, it’ll be another step along the way to sending an actual manned mission there. When things here seem bleak, we can grab onto amazing things like this.

As it turns out, while all of this is going on, it’s another spectacular time to try to look between the clouds for the red planet. During the last week of February, Mars crosses over the imaginary line between the constellation Aries (the ram) and into Taurus (the bull). In your mind’s eye, try to see those rovers driving and digging in the parched dust on the surface, looking for water and possible signs of life.

At the start of Mars’s namesake month, it appears near the tiny dipper-shaped Pleiades, one of the closest star clusters. The cluster, named for the seven mythological sisters who were daughters of Atlas and Pleione, is about 450 light years from us. It’s made up of about 1,000 stars, but it’s tough to see more than six in Westchester’s skies.

Even so, as those stars travel through an unrelated cloud of dust, which scatters and reflects their light, it’s a gorgeous sight with the unaided eye. Through binoculars, it’s simply spectacular. On the nights of Mar. 4 and 5, Mars will cross just below the cluster from our point of view. Its rusty color will be a wonderful contrast against the sisters’ blue.

It’s cold but it’s a great time to let your mind wander and explore Mars, like the rovers working there. I hope you can find a few minutes to look up this month.

Scott Levine (astroscott@yahoo.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers, dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club, including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit westchesterastronomers.org. Events are free and open to the public. Please note: All in-person club activities are suspended until further notice due to COVID-19.

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