Once in a Blue Moon

A once in a lifetime event for astronomers is always worth waiting for. Although the Mars opposition occurs once every twenty-six months, it can still be regarded as once in a lifetime event if you take into consideration the last time that a Mars opposition occurred on the exact same night as a blue moon. Planetary opposition is an occurrence that takes place when the planet rises as the sun sets. This typically occurs when the Earth is directly between the sun and the planet, causing the planet to follow the same elliptical path as the sun. Add that the moon will be full twice in the month of January, called a blue moon, then there is much to get excited about. What is the reason for all of the excitement? The second full moon of the month of January is on the 30th, the same day that Mars will be in direct opposition.

The planetary opposition of Mars in relationship to the sun has fascinated stargazers for centuries. Most astronomers took the opportunity to simply observe the passing of this phenomenon, while watchmaker David Gill, in 1877, used the opportunity to use exact measurement devices and calculations to calculate the solar parallax simply by observing Mars. This was an amazing astronomic breakthrough as it was responsible for redefining the calculations for finding the distance from the earth to the sun. The parallax has recently been updated with more accurate calculations, but using the same formula that brought David Gill to his conclusion.

With the newest opposition in sight, the eminent return of Mars has prompted much ado. The night sky will be illuminated by a full moon on January 29th and 30th, as the Red Planet rises at Six O’clock PM, EST. This, however, is not the beginning of the event, which is set to last nearly a week and is marked with the closest the red planet has been to Earth since August of 2003. Mars is actually closest to the earth on the 27th of January, and it will slowly ascend upwards as the days progress. If you are wanting to catch a glimpse of the beautiful red surface of this planet at its absolute closest. Brave the cold, or enjoy the balmy summer night if your in the southern hemisphere on the 27th and get your telescope into focus. This will be the best night for optimal viewing of the red planet, as it will slowly diminish in size in the following weeks. Mars will shine at Magnitude -1.28, almost as bright as the brightest star in the sky, Sirus. Don’t delay or you will have to wait another twenty-six months for the March of 2012 opposition. However, the next time that the opposition of Mars will occur on the same night as a blue moon depends on the cycle of the next blue moon.

Not only does the opposition and Blue Moon occur on the same night, Mars is just a hand span (7 degrees of arc) away from the Moon. It is important, then, to document the events of this night to say that you were there. Perhaps even some Photographs to mark the occasion. For the next time this occurs, you children or grandchildren will be the ones to witness it.

Leave a Reply