Now that Mars's record-breaking close approach is history (it happened on the night of August 26–27, 2003) is the show over?
Mars remains just as big and bright, for all practical purposes, during the first half of September. In fact, until the end of the month it's larger and brighter than it will be during its next opposition in late 2005. Moreover, in one way the show is getting better than ever! Every day Mars rises higher in the sky earlier in the night, which makes it easier to view at a more convenient hour.
Mars is the breathtakingly bright "star" in the southeast after dark. You can't miss it. Mars shines many times brighter than any actual star in the sky. Anyone can see it, no matter how little you know about the stars or how badly light-polluted your sky may be. It gets higher as the evening grows late, and by 11 p.m. or so, it's at its very highest in the south. The planet displays a clear, fiery yellow or yellow-orange hue, due to rust-like iron compounds in its surface.
Even when it's so near, however, Mars is challenging to study in a telescope. At moderately high magnification it appears as a small, bright ball displaying subtle dark markings, a bright white South Polar Cap (now shrinking in the warmth of the Martian late spring), and perhaps traces of bluish white clouds rimming some of the planet's edges.
The brightest yellow areas are deserts covered by fine, windblown dust. The darker markings are terrain displaying more areas of bare rock (much of it ancient lava flows) or darker dust. Mars rotates every 24½ hours, so you can see it turning in just an hour or two of watching.
To see much detail on Mars, you’ll need at least a moderately large telescope with high-quality optics. (For the lowdown on how to select a telescope wisely, see "Choosing Your First Telescope".) You'll also need to wait until Mars rises high in the sky, well above the thick, murky layers of atmosphere that hug the horizon. And the "seeing" must be good — that is, the tiny heat waves that constantly ripple through the Earth's atmosphere should be minimal. These waves cause highly magnified telescopic images to constantly shimmer and fuzz. The quality of the seeing changes greatly from night to night and sometimes from minute to minute.
There has been some confusion over exactly how much of a record Mars set on August 27th. Sky & Telescope senior editor Roger Sinnott got to the bottom of the matter, finding 57,617 BC to be the correct date when Mars last came this near to Earth.
That was 59,619 years ago (taking into account that there was no "year zero" between 1 BC and AD 1). For the full story, see "A Mars Record for the Ages". We won’t have to wait as long for this year's record to be broken: Mars will come just a hair closer on August 28, 2287.
Mars was nearly this close in 1988, and for all practical purposes it looked much the same as now. That year it reached an apparent diameter of 23.8 arcseconds as seen in a telescope; this year it topped out at 25.1 arcseconds wide (the angular size of a penny seen at a distance of 500 feet). And Mars will make another good pass by Earth in October 2005, appearing 20.2 arcseconds wide.
Read more about Mars is in the June, July, and August issues of Sky & Telescope and online in "Mars at Its All-Time Finest".