Clear Skies

There Are Good Reasons Why Everyone Loves Mars

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Clear SkiesBy Scott Levine

For all the good they do, all their old-timey-Tweeting of what’s going on in our heads, sticky notes have a dark side.

Let me share this one with you that I found on my desk recently, in its all unpunctuated glory: Mars

That’s it. I’m baffled, too.

Maybe I was thinking that Mars isn’t the biggest, or the wettest. It’s not the – how should I say this – ringiest, and doesn’t have the most moons. It’s not the “-est”-est of any of our solar system’s planets.

What it has going for it, though, is it’s fairly close, it’s rocky, like Earth, is cool enough that it won’t melt any robots we send there (I’m looking at you, Venus) and has an atmosphere that’s thin enough that astronomers can look straight down to its surface from many millions of miles away. All of that wouldn’t have fit on that tiny yellow square.

For over 40 years, we’ve sent robots exploring, and there are nine active missions of one kind or another there now. Add in all the books, movies and stories about little green men. Everyone loves Mars. There are a lot of reasons why people talk so much about living there someday.

Planets are among the sky’s brightest objects, so they’re easy to pick out. Watching them now is a subtle and simple thing that lets us look back through human time and connect with our countless generations of ancestors who looked to the skies to help push through their own difficult times, like we are now. With the naked eye and its deep red color, which comes mostly from iron oxide on its surface – the same stuff in the rust on your fence posts – Mars always stops me cold.

Through October, Mars is easy to spot in the east by mid-evening. If you need a hand finding it, head out this Friday, Oct. 2. That night, it rides the sky together with the just-past-full moon. They’ll appear closer together than the width of the outstretched finger you’ll use to point them out to your friends.

On Oct. 13, Mars reaches opposition, the point when it’s directly opposite the sun in our sky. This is the same arrangement as when the moon is full, only Mars is much farther away.

The phases of the moon for the month of October.

Like the full moon, objects at opposition tend to be at the brightest. So, it’ll be an especially great night to try to have a look. Imagine what the view is like from there, too.

Since we’re looking at the fully lit face of Mars in our nighttime sky, anyone watching there – mostly robots we sent – have the darkened night side of our planet in their daytime sky. The planet will stay bright and beautiful in our sky as autumn goes on. Remember, Jupiter and Saturn are still shining in the south.

Speaking of full moons, we have two this month. One on Oct. 1, and the other on Halloween night, Oct 31.

Mars is a lot like home, so maybe that sticky note was just a reminder of that, and a reminder to go look, just like the ancients did. I hope you’ll take a look, too.

Scott Levine ( is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers, who are 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 Events are free and open to the public. Please Note: All in-person club activities are suspended until further notice due to COVID-19 concerns.

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