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Observing Mars


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2003: The year of Mars!

During NAW, Mars will be a prominent sight in the evening sky. You'll be able to observe it with the naked eye, with binoculars or telescopes of all sizes. You will get the best view ever this year because Mars will be so close – but you will still need a reasonably good telescope to see any detail.

Many people will want to take this opportunity to see Mars through a good telescope, and our advice is to go along to one of the many ‘star parties' which will be organised around the country, where you may be able to use a telescope that is probably larger than you could reasonably afford. 

How big will Mars be during NAW?

Although Mars will be at its closest ever, you'll still need a reasonably good telescope to see it. Roughly speaking, it will look about half the size that Jupiter usually does. You can see the disc of Jupiter with a telescope that has a magnification of about 20, so to see Mars you'll need to magnify it about 40 times, or more if you want a good view. Even small telescopes can do this.

To put this into everyday terms, at a magnification of 40, when at its closest Mars would appear about the same size as would an orange seen with the naked eye across the length of a tennis court. You could see it was an orange but that's about all – it would be quite small.

Although the photos of Mars make the detail look very clear, in reality all you usually see is a small, shimmering slightly orange ball, like this:. To see those dark markings and the famous polar caps, you really have to look carefully. More magnification will help, if the telescope is good enough.

What telescope should I buy to see it?

You don't have to – just find a local astronomical society that is holding a viewing session! But many people will want to make this the opportunity to buy themselves a telescope, so they can start to explore the wonders of the heavens for themselves, and this could be the start of a lifelong interest in astronomy. 

There are plenty of reasonably priced telescopes around these days, but here are a few words of advice. Don't expect a lot from any telescope costing much under £200, and certainly be very wary of anything sold in a toyshop or department store. The store's buyers for these goods probably know next to nothing about what they are purchasing, and are more concerned with the discount they get from the wholesaler than how good they are. The wording on the box is no guide to quality, and the cheap telescope market is notoriously full of rubbish. Regrettably, even some top department stores and other apparently reputable outlets sell telescopes that are either misleadingly described or optically poor. So do check the websites that give advice, including our own telescope guide.

How easy will it be to find Mars during NAW?

No problem! But you'll have to wait up quite late. Mars will rise over the rooftops by about 9.30 in the evening, but you'll need to wait until about 10.30 to see it well. It will be a very bright orangey-red object in the southeast, far outshining anything else (unless there happens to be a plane around with its landing lights on, which will move noticeably). Mars rises and sets along with the stars, so you will have to wait for some time to notice its movement.
Mars as it appeared in the 
evening sky in 2001

For the inititated, here is a a graph that shows the changes in the planet's size and height above the horizon (altitude) during the period of closest approach. Although the planet does get higher in the sky later in the year, the difference is only a matter of a few degrees. However, later in the year it will be visible earlier in the evening.

If you do want to buy your own telescope, get plenty of advice first. To get you started, follow these links to pages that will help:

The NAW 1996 guide to Choosing Binoculars and Telescopes

Robin Scagell's Stargazing page (not part of NAW site)

Ask the expert!
If you have further detailed questions about observing Mars (but not about National Astronomy Week or buying a telescope) then contact Richard McKim, the Mars Section Director of the British Astronomical Association, who has kindly agreed to field questions on this subject.