Marching to Mars

Roughly seven months ago the U.S., China and United Arab Emirates took advantage of favourable Earth/Mars orbit to launch missions to Mars. Over the next two weeks all three, one orbiter and two landers will reach Mars. Ponder the enormity of three nations, three separate missions congregating at Mars within days of each other. Who knew the UAE has a space program? Why is China poking at Mars? How many people still believe space exploration starts and ends with NASA? Who even knows how many separate space missions are active?

The UAE arrives first on February 9th. The EMM (Emirates Mars Mission) probe Amal is an orbiter tasked with collecting atmospheric data. The UAE space program is an initiative to advance science and technology rather than reliance on oil. The very next day China’s Tianwen-1, a dual orbiter/lander mission settles into orbit. If all goes well, Tianwen-1 will deploy its solar powered lander sometime in May. This is China’s second attempt to deploy a Mars lander, their 2011 joint venture with Russia failed. On February 18 NASA’s Perseverance Rover skips orbit for immediate deployment to the Jezero Crater, an ancient river delta which flowed into a lake. NASA is the only space agency to successfully land on Mars. (Eight times since 1976 )

Mars: Three new space missions are about to reach the Red Planet – here’s what you need to know (

The Apollo era cemented universal cosmic wonder. The enormity of space travel, realization of science fiction becoming reality resonated with collective astonishment. Tonight I write of three autonomous Mars missions arriving within days of each other knowing full well most people aren’t interested. Today, cosmic wonder languishes in a puddle of competing click bait, occasionally bubbling to the surface when news feeds pluck near Earth asteroid calamity froth. Missions to Mars aren’t enough to attract clicks and views. Cosmic wonder suffers in silence.

Blue Moon, Red Mars On October 31, 2020

On October 31, 2020 a blue moon and red Mars will dominate night skies. This Halloween boasts the second full moon in a calendar month and closest approach of Mars to Earth in two years. Despite “once in a blue moon” folklore, blue moons aren’t that rare. The Moon completes a phase every 29.5 days, a hair shy of our calendar month. As such, every two to three years a 13th full moon occurs. We call it a blue moon. There won’t be another blue moon until August 31, 2023. Not another full moon on Halloween until October 31, 2039.

Astronomers regard Halloween as one of four annual cross quarter days. Cross quarter days fall midway between an equinox and solstice. Halloween being the midway point between the fall equinox and winter solstice. Halloween joins Groundhog Day (February 2), May Day (May 1) and Lammas (August 1) to complete cross quarter day’s roster. Cross quarter day blue moons are significantly rarer than run of the mill blue moons.

The phases of the moon by James Reynolds

Below – a bright Mars teaser from Abigail Atlenza at

Moon and Mars rising above a ridgeline, with a glorious display of green northern lights filling most of the sky.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Abigail Atienza caught a waning gibbous moon – a moon just past full – and the red planet Mars (on the right) with the northern lights in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, on September 6, 2020. Thank you, Abigail! See more photos of bright Mars, recently at its best in 2 years.

Follow Perseverance In Real Time

NASA launched Mars Rover Perseverance on July 30, 2020. Barring unforeseen calamity a six month journey culminating on February 18, 2021. Tasked with astrobiology as its key objective, Perseverance is primed to search for evidence of ancient microbial life. A specialized toolbox containing state of the art X-ray fluorescence technology is designed to map chemistry of dust and rock, hopefully identifying traces of ancient microbial fossils.

Anyone who’s watched The Martian movie has an inkling of how far away Mars is. Theoretically the closest Earth and Mars can be is 54.6 million kilometers – sweet spot with Mars at perihelion (closest orbit to the Sun), Earth at aphelion (farthest orbit from Sun), but that’s never happened in recorded history. Closest recorded distance happened in 2003 at 56 million kilometers. At their farthest distance apart on opposite sides of the Sun, it’s a staggering 401 million kilometers between Earth and Mars. Average distance is 225 million km.

I can tell you light travels at 299,792 km/second. At closest possible distance, light from Mars would reach Earth in 3.03 minutes. Closest recorded approach is 3.11 minutes, 22.4 minutes at farthest approach, average time for Mars shine to reach Earth – 12.5 minutes. At 58,000 km/hour NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto was the fasted spacecraft ever launched. At that speed a spacecraft travelling in a straight line to Mars at closest approach would arrive in 39 days. Don’t get excited, the average is 162 days. Perseverance is travelling at 39,600 km per hour.

Daunting as distance and velocity might be, NASA created a interactive app to follow Perseverance in real time.

Zoom in, zoom out, be one with Perseverance or peer at it from Pluto’s perspective. Once you get the hang of it, a cosmic pondering delight.

Drum-shaped spacecraft in space with orbits of planets shown in background.

Follow the 2020 Mars mission in real time here. Fully interactive, Eyes on the Solar System lets you track Perseverance in real time as it travels to Mars. Give Perseverance a spin, or use controls on pop-up menus to customize just what you see, from faraway to right “on board.” Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

Look Up At Behemoth Mars

In 2003 Mars was closer to Earth than any time in the past 60,000 years. Tonight Mars is slightly farther away, but won’t be this close again until 2035. Doesn’t have to be tonight, but please look up and ponder Mars.

Image result for find mars july 2018

Ours is not a symmetrical universe, celestial objects don’t march in perfect circular orbit. Mass, proximity, tilt of axis, speed of rotation and composition dictate elliptical waltzes across the night sky. Every elliptical planetary orbit has a closest point (perihelion) and farthest point (aphelion) from the Sun. On July 27, 2018 “opposition” placed Earth directly between Mars and the Sun, but thanks to elliptical orbit not closest to Earth until tonight. Time between Mars opposition and closest point to Earth varies from 8.5 days (1969) to 10 minutes (2208 and 2232).

So put Mars viewing on your calendar for 2016. You won’t see Mars this size again until 2018, when Mars will put on an even better show. Illustration via

Illustration of a telescopic view of Mars at its last opposition in 2016, in contrast to 2018. Mars appears larger through a telescope in 2018. Its larger size in our sky means it’s brighter, very bright indeed, as you’ll see if you look for Mars tonight! Illustration via

Mars will still be visible after July and August, 2018, but each month it will shrink in apparent size as Earth rushes ahead of Mars in our smaller, faster orbit around the sun. As telescopes show Mars smaller in apparent sky, our unaided eyes will see Mars fade in brightness. Image via NASA Tumblr.

Ponder First ExoMars Images

ESA (European Space Agency) ExoMars Mission left our planet on March 14, 2016. Exo refers to Exobiology, the umbrella principle of a joint ESA and Russian mission to search for methane and other trace atmospheric Mars gases that might be signatures of biological life. Designed with several objectives, ExoMars arrived mid October 2016 as primary craft TGO (Trace Gas Orbiter) and Mars lander Schiaparelli.

Schiaparelli did her best, but not everything goes according to plan. Mission control’s best guess being Schiaparelli thrusters malfunctioned, pounding the lander to full fuel tank Martian oblivion at a violent 300 Km an hour.


This comparison of before-and-after images by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows two features likely created during the Oct. 19, 2016 landing attempt of the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander. The small bright feature at bottom is probably Schiaparelli’s parachute, while the dark, fuzzy blob is likely the lander’s crash site.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Unfazed by Schiaparelli’s demise, TGO dutifully marches a four day orbital ellipse of Mars. A carefully prescribed stretched loop ranging in altitude from 300 to 96,000 Km. Beginning March 2017, mission control will order TGO to repeatedly dip into the upper atmosphere, depleting orbital energy and shrinking the ellipse. Objective – a near perfect circular orbit at 400 Km by March, 2018.

Meanwhile CaSSIS (Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System) aboard TGO returned mesmerizing first images of Mars.

A feature called Arsia-Chasmata, on the blanks of a martian volcano Arsia Mons. Width of this image is about 15 miles (25 km).

A feature called Arsia-Chasmata, on the blanks of a martian volcano Arsia Mons. Width of this image is about 15 miles (25 km). Image via ESA/ Roscosmos/ EsoMars/ CaSSIS/ UniBE.

First images from ExoMars mission

How To Get To Mars

Planets don’t circle the sun, their paths follow elliptical orbits. Think of them as race cars on separate tracks traveling at different speeds – sometimes they’ll whiz past each other, other times they’re far apart. Planetary distance is measured from the Sun, orbital point closest to the Sun is perihelion, furthest away is aphelion. The closest point between Earth and Mars happens when Earth is at aphelion, Mars is at perihelion, and both planets are on the same side of the Sun – this is called opposition. In theory, at true opposition Earth would be 54.6 million kilometers from Mars. I say theory because it hasn’t happened in recorded history, 2003 marked the closest nod in 50,000 years at 56 million kilometers.

So how do you get to Mars? Roughly every two years Earth/Mars orbits are close enough to contemplate interception. With current capabilities it takes approximately 250 days, all science has to do is calculate where Mars will be  when rovers come knocking. Take 6 minutes to ponder a clip from the 2006 IMAX documentary Roving Mars –

Our Next Chapter

Today, September 28, 2015 will forever stand as the date mankind closed a chapter in space history. All plot twists and dramatic interludes written to this point, upstaged by confirmation of seasonal water flows on Mars. Analysis of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter confirmed “seasonal dark streaks on Mars” (technically, recurring slope lineae )were the result of moving surface water.

Waxing and waning Martian streaks coincide with the seasons, actively darker and “moving” when temperatures hover between 0 – 30 degrees Fahrenheit, grinding to faded halts in colder weather. Media widely reports “flowing” water on Mars, an image that might conjure notions of rivers or freshwater pools – not so fast. Think along the line of trickles or oozing, no one knows where it comes from – theories range from melting sub-surface ice to salt crystals absorbing water vapor until reaching critical mass, bursting briefly to form muddy striations.

Martian water is so salty, the Dead Sea looks like a pristine mountain spring. Salty enough that temperatures of 21 degrees Fahrenheit (average air temperature on Earth required to form sea ice ) equate to the balmy days of Mars water “flows”.

Here are more recurring slope lineae, in this case some 100 meters long. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Horowitz Crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are formed by liquid water. Image via NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona.

Here are more recurring slope lineae, about 100 meters long. Image via NASA/ JPL/ Univ. of Arizona.

Flow, trickle, ooze, melt, crystallize, evaporate – I don’t mind, we have water on Mars. Our search for life demanded proof of liquid water, tomorrow we  begin the next chapter.



Curious Martian Sunset

April 15, 2015 NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover spent the 956th day of its’ Martian mission deploying “mast cameras” from a position within the Gale Crater. Hoping to capture a transit of Mercury, Curiosity took 6.51 minutes to immortalize this time-lapse compilation of a Martian sunset. Ponder Curiosity’s first colour sunset from Mars.

View larger. | Mars sunset in Gale Crater, Sol 956, Wednesday, April 15, 2015.  Image via 34mm MastCam on Mars Curiosity rover.  Image via NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science Systems.