Start Observing Mars Now

(or wait 15 Years)

Start observing Mars – Now, Today, or as soon as we get a clear night after the wildfire smoke clears out. The upcoming close approach and opposition of Mars, on Oct 6th and 13th, will likely provide the best views of Mars for the next 15 years as Mars will either be smaller or at a lower altitude during the next 6 oppositions. Plus, while the Southern Polar Cap is prominent now, it is melting and may disappear from view completely as we move later into October.

Location of Mars on Oct 13 2020 from Vancouver at 10:00 pm
Stellarium chart showing the location of Mars at 10:00 pm PDT on Oct 13, 2020 from Vancouver, BC – in the south-east skies, about 30° above the horizon.

Mars is easy to spot using just your eyes as it is one of brightest objects in the sky (even rivaling Jupiter in brightness) and it has a distinctive red-orange colour. It will becomes easier to see without staying up too late as it rises in the East earlier and earlier: at 8: 50 pm on Sept 13, 6:30 pm on Oct 13th, and 03:07 pm on Nov 13th. In theory the best views come closer to midnight when Mars is at its highest, due South and crossing the meridian. But the face of Mars changes as it rotates so it is said that the best time to view Mars is “all night” to watch different surface features make an appearance. 

What You Can See

A telescope is required to see any surface details even when Mars is at its biggest and brightest – Mars’ maximum size in this apparition is just 22.6 arc-seconds – that is small. By comparison, the full moon is more than 80 times larger.

Mars will appear small as shown in this simulated 0.22° field of view and 225X magnification that I obtain with this setup: Skywatcher ED 100 mm f/9 refractor, Vixen 10mm SLV eyepiece & 2.5x Powermate/Barlow.

But even relatively small telescopes (60 to 100 mm) do reveal the major features: the polar caps, lighter areas of rust-coloured dust, and darker areas of exposed volcanic rock. Larger scopes are capable of better resolution and showing more detail.

You’ll want to bump up the magnification, by using a longer focal length telescope or shorter focal length eyepiece, for example. The highest usable magnification depends on the seeing conditions and the aperture of your telescope. Generally, a magnification of 1 or 2 times the aperture in mm works well on nights of good seeing. For example, if you have a 100 mm telescope, try 100X to 200X. If you have a 200 mm scope, try 200X to 400X. However the maximum magnification is usually limited by Earth’s atmosphere as any turbulence will blur the image. Magnifications above 400X may not be realistic no matter how large the telescope.

Simulated magnified view of surface details through a 200 mm (8 inch) Schmidt-Cass telescope. Image credit: generated with CalSKY.

Simple eyepiece designs with fewer glass elements and a narrow field of view can work well. Eyepieces with a shorter focal length will provide a higher magnification. A good 2x or 3x Barlow or Powermate lens can be useful for increasing the image size with your set of eyepieces.

The Changing Face

Mars rotates on its axis at almost the same rate as Earth giving it a day/night cycle that lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds. That is good for observing for two reasons. First, you can see different surface features throughout a single night. If you start observing at 08:00 pm on Oct 13th with a dark feature like Syrtis Major located near the western limb then 4 hours later, at midnight, it will have travelled towards the center with the new feature Sinas Meridiani appearing in the west.

The second benefit is that you can observe at the same time on subsequent nights and see a new feature near the eastern limb before it rotates off the face about 40 mins later. The free program Stellarium displays a simulated view of the surface of Mars when you zoom-in enough and you can use it to visualize how features move as Mars rotates.

The changing face of Mars over several weeks near its opposition. Image credit: generated with Stellarium.

With the patience to observe over several weeks, this rotation makes it possible to see the full 360 degrees of the Martian globe.

Prominent Surface Features

The RASC Observer’s Handbook 2020 has a map of the major features on page 221 and there are plenty of others available online.

Image credit: Space Telescope Science Institute, Ann Feild Didyk and Graphics Dept.

Many maps show a view following a convention where “South is up” and remember that your view through your telescope may be inverted (common for reflectors like Dobsonians) or mirror flipped right-to-left (for refractor, compound, or Schmidt-Cass scopes). So check your orientation when identifying features.

The major features of the Martian surface (excluding the polar caps) following the “south is up” convention. Image Credit: Damian Peach/Sky and Telescope.

CalSKY or the online Mars Profiler from Sky & Telescope are useful tools for showing features visible at any observing site and any date/time. 

The polar caps are one of the most striking features. The Southern Polar Cap (SPC) is prominent at this time because it is just past the summer solstice in the Martian southern hemisphere. Summer in the south means that the south pole is tilted towards the Sun and, near opposition, also towards us on Earth. But don’t hesitate in having a look for it because the SPC is shrinking and will likely melt away completely during this apparition. It is getting a double whammy of summer heating and additional heating because Mars is at a position in its orbit that brings it relatively close to the Sun. The northern polar cap will not be visible but it is possible to see hazy clouds above the northern region. 

Other prominent regions on Mars are differentiated by brightness and colour with lighter areas of rust-colored dust, and darker areas of exposed volcanic rock. The lighter areas were thought to be continents so their names include “land” or “plain” such as Arabia Terra, Hellas Planitia, and Amazonis Planitia. The darker regions were thought to be seas or large patches of vegetation. Examples include Mare Erythraeum, Mare Acidalium and the striking Syrtis Major Planum. These dark regions may appear to change their size and shape over time. Early observers attributed the changes to rainfall or changes in vegetation but it turns out that these regions can be obscured by atmospheric dust or made brighter by the presence of clouds.

If you have a large telescope or the equipment and skill to photograph Mars then you may be able to identify some of the specific features described below.

Dust storms can appear as yellow-ish hazy areas. Local or regional dust storms are an interesting sight but large dust storms can ruin observing by obscuring features – a global dust storm during the last opposition in 2018 covered the entire planet!

Rotating globes from 2018 show a global dust storm completely obscuring the surface of Mars. Image Credit: NASA Hyperwall.

Blueish-white clouds, formed from water ice, may also be visible especially in photographs. Such clouds often appear near the equatorial regions, around the large volcanoes, close to the limb, or close to the northern polar region.

Syrtis Major Planum is one of the darkest regions on Mars. It was observed as early as 1659 by the astronomer Christiaan Huygens and was the first surface feature seen on another planet. It is now known to be a low relief shield volcano but was originally thought to be a shallow sea. The name “Syrtis Major” was chosen by Giovanni Schiaparelli during Mars’ close approach to Earth in 1877.

Olympus mons in the Tharsis Montes region is the largest volcano on Mars, and also the largest known volcanoe in the entire solar system. As a comparison, Olympus Mons is 25 km high and 624 km in diameter with a 80 km caldera at its summit while the largest volcano on Earth, Mauna Loa (10 km high and 120 km wide), is less than ½ the height, ¼ the diameter, and ¼ the height. Volcanoes can grow larger on Mars because of its lower gravity. Also, Mars’ crust remains stationary over a lava hot spot while on Earth crustal plates move above the hot spots spreading the lava among many volcanoes.

Comparison of Olympus Mons to large mountains on Earth. Image Credit:

Hellas Planitia is a large impact basin located in the southern hemisphere. Hellas can appear so bright (due to fog, surface ice, and clouds) that it is sometimes confused for the southern polar cap. It is likely to have been formed by an asteroid impact early in Mars’ history – about 4 billion years ago.

Valles Marineris is a large system of canyons that runs along the equator of Mars. It is the largest canyon system on Mars and is almost 5 times deeper than the Grand Canyon. The large canyon system was discovered in 1972 by NASA’s Mariner 9 spacecraft, the first satellite to orbit another planet.

Solis Lacus is also known as the “The Eye of Mars” because it is a dark circular feature surrounded by a light area, as is a pupil. Solis Lacus is known for the variability of its appearance, changing its size and shape when dust storms occur. Percival Lowell believed that it was the planetary capital of Mars due to the number of “canals” he claimed intersected at the region.

Mars Image from Damian Peach 2020-09-11
Surface features are apparent in this high Resolution image of Mars from September 11, 2020 taken with a Mewlon 250 telescope. South is up so the bright white patch at the top is the Southern Polar Cap. The large uniform light area at the right in the north is Amazonis Planitia. Clouds are visible around the Arsia Mons volcano in the Tharsis Montes region. More hazy bluish-white clouds appear on the left limb and above the Northern Polar region. Solis Lacus is faint just below center near the left limb. Image Credit: Damian Peach

Schiaparelli Crater is a large impact crater measuring approximately 460 km in diameter. It was named after Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer known for his observations of the Red Planet and his mistranslated term “canali”. In the book and movie, The Martian, Mark Watney, a stranded astronaut from the Ares 3 mission (the 3rd manned mission to Mars) makes a 3,000 km trek from Acidadia Plantia to Schiaparelli Crater to reach the landing site of Ares 4.

FInal Observing Tips

Mars only gives us a small view and it can be difficult to pick out the even tinier features on its surface, so here are some final tips:

  • Have patience. Observing is a learned skill that takes practice.
  • Pick a Night with steady air. Details are easier to spot when the air is steady and the stars aren’t twinkling too much.
  • Acclimatize Your Telescope. Bring your scope outside to acclimatize for at least 30-60 minutes before you plan to observe. This will help reduce the air currents inside your scope that degrade the image. Scopes with large mirrors or lenses, and those with closed tubes, take longer to acclimate.
  • Observe Frequently. Take advantage of the fact that Mars rotates slower than the Earth by extending your observing session for several hours on one night, or at the same time over several days to see all sides of the planet.
  • Relax and sit down. An old rule of thumb says that observing while comfortably seated is the equivalent of adding a couple extra inches of aperture. When you observe seated you are more relaxed and less shaky, and that pays off in terms of being able to see more detail.

Mars is one of the most interesting and rewarding objects in the solar system to observe and next few weeks provide the best opportunity in the next 15 years to view it.