There’s still time to enjoy Mars while it is relatively near!

No telescope? The good news is you really don’t need one to enjoy Mars or the other planets, stars and Moon. For thousands of years, before the telescope, people loved seeing the sky. Don’t let lack of a telescope stop you.

Mars is lovely with eyes alone when it is in close approach.

Even a small telescope, however, will draw you closer to the wonders visible in the sky over your head, a more intimate look at the Universe a spacefarer would see, but without ever leaving the Earth.

The famed Red Planet made its closest approach to Earth on July 31st (35.8 million miles) since it was even closer in 2003. It will not appear this close and bright until 2035! Closest approach occurs about once in two years, but it varies a great deal because the orbits of Mars and Earth are not perfect circles around the Sun.

During late August Mars is visible in the southeast as soon as it gets dark, and is highest in the south around 11 p.m. daylight savings time. For mid-northern latitudes such as here in Pennsylvania, Mars doesn’t get very high this time around.

The planet is gradually dimming because it is drawing away from us, but it’s still very bright at about magnitude -2.3.
That’s brighter than any star in the night sky, and it’s a lovely rust color.

A moderate sized backyard telescope can show dark smudges on the planet, as well as the bright white south polar cap. Details on Mars are usually very difficult to see and it doesn’t help that a planet-wide dust storm has been occurring on Mars. Thankfully the dust has been settling down, so if you have a telescope, give it a try.

High magnification, a night of steady atmosphere and patience are keys to seeing Martian surface details. If you use a reflector telescope, the mirrors also need to be aligned well.

Usually Mars is quite far away and unremarkable to see, only about as bright as one of the stars of the Big Dipper, around magnitude +2. 

Normally, Mars is very tiny in the telescope and details become practically impossible to detect, depending on how far away it has reached.
Saturn, at magnitude +0.3, appears as a bright yellow star in the south at nightfall. The wonderful ringed world is situated above the spout of the "Teapot" configuration of stars that make up the brighter stars of Sagittarius. Saturn is an amazing sight in a telescope, even a small one offering 60x or more magnification. You will see the ring system easily, foreshortened as an ellipse encircling the planet. A small telescope will also easily pick out Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan, appearing as a faint star somewhere close by.

In the southwest at nightfall is the bright planet Jupiter, magnitude +2.0 and white. A small telescope reveals the four large moons of Jupiter, like little stars on either side.

With eyes alone, look to the left of Jupiter for a bright reddish star, Antares.

Venus is extremely bright, -4.5, but shining low in the west during twilight. Look as early as you for a better view of Venus in a telescope. The planet is just starting in its crescent phase. Because Venus and Mercury orbit closer to the Sun than we do, the planets show phases (full, gibbous, quarter and crescent) similar to our Moon, when viewed in a telescope.

Imagine- if you set up a telescope on Mars and looked at Earth, you would also see our planet in various phases. You’d also see the Moon next to Earth, showing phases as well.

The Moon, by the way, is in full phase on Sunday, August 26. Your eyes are all you need to see the Moon’s face; binoculars will bring it out even better.
Keep looking up!

— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.