Mars will be at opposition on July 27th and visible throughout the night that month. This means it will be significantly bigger than normal, and in this particular instance bigger than we’ve seen it since 2003. An equivalently close approach will not occur again until the year 2050 (!!!), when Mars will be *slightly* bigger.
What is opposition, and why should I see it this year?
Opposition is where the Earth sits between the Sun and a planet, in this case Mars. With the sunlight reflecting straight back at Earth, this makes it particularly bright. But due to Mars’ oblique orbit each opposition isn’t equal and it’s apparent size to us changes from year to year. It won’t be quite as close as 2003 (which was the closest in 60,000 years!!!), but it will be the best we’ve seen since then.
Furthermore, you won’t see Mars this close again until the next optimal opposition in 2050. So for any red planet enthusiast who doesn’t want to wait another 30 years, your best option is to make sure you have access to a telescope this July, or get yourself on the shortlist for Mars colonisation – see http://www.spacex.com/mars or email Elon Musk for more details.
How to Prepare – Visual
Mars will be bright and easy to find throughout July, so don’t worry about your level of astronomical knowledge – this event can be easily observed by everyone without difficulty! Use a telescope with a long focal length to really make the red planet big and beautiful. Any decent scopes with a diameter larger than 5 inches (130mm) paired with an appropriate 7mm eyepice of reasonable quality should be capable of observing good detail on the surface of Mars including the polar ice caps, dark areas of volcanic rock on the surface, and maybe even dust storms. See the table below for a Special Bintel Mars Opposition Telescope/Eyepiece Package to suit your budget!
Our Top Visual Packages for Observing Mars in 2018
How to Prepare – Photographic
If you want to take a photo of Mars, make sure you practice a little on the bigger planets Saturn and Jupiter first. Mars is very small target by comparison so it can be hard to perfect an image, especially when you are trying to “zoom” in so close! You want to use the highest focal length scope you have. Don’t worry about the F-stop – it will be bright so slower F10 telescopes like Schmidt Cassegrains are actually ideal. The 14″ Celestron Edge HD would be the consumer scope of choice for imaging this event – though it is on the higher end!
You should also pickup a standard barlow or powermate, where 2.5x or higher is usually good for maximising the apparent size of a planet for imaging. For the best results, use a mono (black and white) camera with RGB filters. A colour camera will still work great, but you will get more surface detail by applying the right technique with a mono camera.
Attach your camera at prime focus, at the back of the telescope – try to avoid using a diagonal… the less mirrors the better. Take many shots. The seeing will change from night to night, hour to hour, minute to minute and second to second. The more data you have, the better your final image will be after post-processing.
We hope this helps! Don’t forget to send us your best shots!
Gear Suggestions for Mars 2018 Opposition…