Mars, the red planet, has always been the focus of human imagination and exploration. Although it’s our “neighbour” planet (besides Venus), its diameter is roughly half of Earth’s. That is why it only lights up during opposition – meaning when its orbit takes it directly opposite the Sun as seen from Earth. This happens roughly every two years because a Mars year is 1.8 Earth years long. Not every opposition is the same, though! Mars’s orbit is more elliptical than Earth’s, so some oppositions are more favorable than others. This is one of them – Mars hasn’t been closer to Earth since 2005! What does that mean? Well, you can compare it to landscape sightseeing on Earth – the closer you get, the more detail you will see! Amateur telescopes will show you the polar caps, light and dark markings on the surface, maybe even a hint of thin clouds at the planets’ limb! If you don’t have a telescope, join the members of the Beskraj (meaning: Infinity) astronomy society on Jarun Lake this evening and take a look through their telescopes for yourself! While looking through the eyepiece, remember – you are looking at the only planet in the Solar System on which you can notice surface features with amateur telescopes (Mercury is too small, Venus clouded out, and the gas giants have no solid surface!).
If at first the view doesn’t seem like much, imagine what our Earth would look like from Mars – not much bigger! I wonder how did Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer, see the infamous channels on the surface of the Red Planet… His contemporary, Croatian scientist Leo Brenner “saw” them too from his observatory in the town of Mali Lošinj on Lošinj Island where Schiaparelli joined him on one occasion. Until we have more sophisticated space probes and landers we can only wonder if there had ever been any life on Mars…and if there’s any to be found today.