Mars, the red planet, is ready for an outstanding performance this month.
Over the past few days, it has been approaching Earth and growing in apparent size.
On Wednesday, sky-watchers can get their telescopes ready to observe it as a bright object near star Spica (Tamil star Chithirai).
“As the sun sets on April 9, the planet will appear low in the east, at a distance of 9.2 crore km from the Earth, in the constellation Virgo. It will appear bright in the sky throughout the night and can be observed with the naked eye too,” says P. Iyamperumal, executive director of B. M. Birla Planetarium, Chennai.
This is the best time to observe the planet this year, he added. “Some of its surface details such as the polar ice cap and huge valleys (that will be visible as rough patches in the planet’s equatorial region) can be tracked with the help of telescopes.”
But the planet will appear far smaller than in 2003, when it was at a distance of 5.5 crore km from Earth. All close encounters are not the same, as the orbits of the planets are elliptical. Mars, especially, has a highly eccentric orbit.
As the planets move at different periodicities, the speed at which Earth moves is higher than Mars.
So, even though their orbits will come closer in the next few months, by the time Mars reaches a point closest to the orbit of the Earth during September, Earth would have moved far away, making it difficult for us to see Mars at close quarters.
Another celestial visitor who will join the party this week is Jupiter.
As Mars rises in the eastern skies as an orange dot, Jupiter will shine bright, right overhead in the constellation Gemini.
“With the help of telescopes one would be able to observe some of its moons — Ganymede, Callisto, IO and Europa. As Mars moves overhead in the midnight skies Jupiter will set,” Dr. Iyamperumal said.
Birla Planetarium will make arrangements for the public to see the planets from April 8 to 10 between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Periyar Science and Technology Centre, Chennai.