Close Encounter

Mars Night To Be Hosted At Local Observatory

Mars will appear brighter than it has in the past 15 years Friday. The red planet is also closer to Earth than it has been since 2003. A dust storm is ravaging the planet. The Kohl telescope at the Martz-Kohl Observatory will be able to magnify surface details as well as the storm. AP photo

FREWSBURG — At the Martz-Kohl Observatory, one of the largest telescopes in the tri-state area will soon give astronomy enthusiasts the best chance to see Mars as the planet is closer than it’s been in the past 15 years and will be in the next 15 years.

Scheduled for 8:30 p.m. to midnight tonight and Saturday, the 20-inch Kohl telescope will be made available to the public so that Mars can be seen in detail. The telescope will allow the public to see the Mars surface and the currently active dust storm covering it.

Often, Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the night sky due to its size. Mars will reign supreme when it comes to looking illuminated this summer. The red planet looks brighter when it gets closer to Earth. As Earth is currently orbiting between the Sun and Mars’ orbit, the planet is said to be in opposition to our home.

“Mars being the closest right now will be the brightest,” said Gary Nelson, president of the observatory.

Earth passes between Mars and the sun every two years and 50 days. Opposition last happened in May 2016, but Mars still hasn’t been as bright as it is now since 2003. The appearance of Mars can vary depending on its location relative to Earth in the solar system. It was faint for the majority of 2017 since it was orbiting on the other side of the sun.

This year marks what astronomers call a perihelic opposition of Mars, meaning Earth comes between the sun and the Mars when Mars is at its closest distance to the sun. This happens Friday, and the Earth won’t pass between the sun and Mars until Sept. 16. Mars will remain considerably bright, like that of another star, until that date.

Fortunately for those who want to observe more cosmic anomalies, a major dust storm is taking place on the red planet. Curious members of the public will be able to view the dusty area of the planet. The sedimentary pollution is said to be caused by a huge volcanic gash along the surface called the Medusae Fossae.

This deposit is eroding significantly over time and may leave Mars dusty for the foreseeable future. The major dust storm is even endangering the Opportunity rover deployed by NASA. Opportunity has been active on Mars since 2004 and is now in a kind of sleep mode because the encompassing darkness from the dust storm has prevented the solar-powered rover from charging its batteries.

About 3 million tons of dust is kicked up on Mars every year, and this gash, which has seemingly resulted from prior volcanic activity in the 620 mile-long Medusae Fossae, is causing a storm through wind erosion of its ridges. Scientists calculate enough dust has been lost to coat the entire planet in a layer 6.5 to 40 feet deep.

“I think observing the storm and the features on Mars is neat,” Nelson said.

Mars will either show off its dusty phenomenon or clear up slightly to reveal surface features such as the polar caps and canals. The hope is that weather on Earth cooperates, providing holes in cloud cover.

Other celestial objects will also be in view this weekend. Multiple telescopes will have planets Venus, Jupiter, Saturn as well as Mars and the moon in their sights. Mars will be visible beginning at 10:20 p.m. both nights through the Kohl telescope once the planet gets high enough above the horizon. Staff will discuss Mars in detail before it is visible. The planet will be projected onto a screen so that anyone not looking through the Kohl telescope can see the planet too.

Observatory personnel will also be able to give tours of the facility and point out constellations and other objects in view for participants. This will be the last publicized event for a while since the construction of a welcome center will begin Aug. 1. Nights dedicated to the observation of other planets such as Saturn and Jupiter are planned for the future.

A roll off roof allows the telescopes to peak through the building, but those who come are asked to dress warmly nonetheless. A rain date is set for Sunday. Donations of $5 for adults and $2 for students will be accepted. Refreshments will be provided.

“We’re not going to see Martians, but we’ll look,” Nelson joked.

The observatory is located at 176 Robbin Hill Road, Frewsburg. Questions can be answered by calling 569-3689.