Timeline for Mars in 2003/2004 - What to Look for on the Red Planet
Mars begins August in the constellation Aquarius at magnitude -2.6. It is the brightest object in the night time sky. On August 27th, 10h UT Mars will be closest to Earth in over 73,000 years, a distance of 0.373 AU (55.76 million km.) and will appear 25.11" in size. On the following day, August 28th, Mars will reach opposition. During August, Mars will continue to brighten until it reaches magnitude -2.9. On August 29th, Mars will be at perihelion, closest approach to the Sun at a distance of 1.381 AU (206.6 million km.)
When you are observing Mars, look especially for the South Pole cap, which will be shrinking rapidly. Although observers might spot the occasional bit of haze along Mars' limb, the atmosphere should remain quite clear. Frost could be observed in desert regions. Dust clouds may begin to form in the southern hemisphere.
During September Mars will be in the constellation Aquarius, continuing its westward retrograde motion. Then towards the end of the month, Mars will appear to slow down, and on September 27th, the red planet will reverse its' course and resumes the original eastward trek. Mars will also begin to slowly fade in brightness. September 29th brings the northern hemisphere winter, and southern summer solstice on Mars.
By September, Mars' South Polar cap should be quite reduced from what it was in July. This is the windy season on Mars and major dust storms could develop with large clouds of dust obscuring some features.
Mars has shrunk in apparent diameter to below 20". Mars continues to fade in brightness in Aquarius, falling below -2.0 by October 10th. By October 5th. On October 7th, Mars can be observed only three degrees from Uranus. Remember that three fingers width held at arm's length is about three degrees.
Mars' southern hemisphere is just past the summer solstice. Observers should see a reduction in white clouds known as orographic clouds. Orographic clouds form when the Martian atmosphere rises while flowing up from slopes and over mountains to begin the condensation process. Martian clouds condense directly from vapor to ice particles because the atmospheric pressure on Mars is too low for liquid water to form. Dust activity should still be visible in the southern hemisphere.
Mars begins November in the constellation Aquarius but has significantly dimmed and is now below magnitude -1.0. Mars' apparent diameter too has become less than 15".
Orographic clouds might still be found around the Tharsis volcanoes. The South Pole cap should be very small now.
On December 4th, Mars leaves the constellation Aquarius and enters Pisces. Apparent diameter at the beginning of the month is 10" and by month's end has shrunk to below 8.4" and is below 0.0 magnitude. On December 17th, Mars passes the Celestial Equator to northern declinations and on the 19th, Mars move beyond 1AU distance. On December 26th, Mars Express spacecraft with the Beagle 2 lander should arrive at Mars.
Dust storms could peak at this time and the Edom Promontorium area should be especially bright. The south polar cap should be at its' minimum.
Mars now resides within the constellation Pisces. This should be the month of the Great Martian Traffic Jam as Spirit and Oppurtunity, NASA's two orbiter/landers should arrive about January 2nd and 25th. Also at some time in January, the Japanese' spacecraft orbiter, Nozomi should arrive at Mars.
The northern polar cap should be large now along with it's hood. Observers should look for ice-fog activity around the Hellas region, and also for orographic clouds.
February finds Mars in Pisces and fading in both size and brightness. By February 18th, Mars will only be 6" across. Surface details are becoming more and more harder to distinguish. Observers should still look for white clouds to appear now and Syrtis Major should begin to expand to the east. Mars' north polar cap should also have a large hood present.
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Kathy Miles, Author, and Chuck Peters, Systems Administrator
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