Optimum Martian Viewing

Optimum Martian Viewing
Recently there has been much talk about Mars in the media. NASA and private firms such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX are working on plans to send people to Mars and eventually build a colony there. For the past month, a planet-wide dust storm has blocked sunlight from reaching the planet’ surface and caused NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover to shut down. In addition, Mars is now in “opposition” to Earth and at its closest point to us since 2003. The current position of Mars gives us optimum Martian viewing.

When astronomers say that Mars is in perihelic opposition to Earth, that means the Sun, Earth, and Mars are in a line with Earth in the middle. That makes the apparent luminosity of Mars the brightest that it is at any time. Also, it means that Mars rises each night as the Sun sets and Mars sets each morning as the Sun rises. So Mars is visible in the sky all night long, and it is two times brighter than Jupiter, which usually outshines it. In addition to Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus are also visible at this time in an east-west arc across the sky after sunset. You can distinguish Mars by its red color, and it will continue to be bright through August for the optimum Martian viewing opportunity.

On July 26, NASA announced, “It’s the beginning of the end for the planet-encircling dust storm on Mars.” However, it may be weeks or even months before the Martian atmosphere clears enough for the Opportunity to have enough sunlight to recharge its batteries and return to life. NASA hopes that the batteries will recharge before Opportunity freezes to death. The average temperature on Mars is minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 Celsius). That is not very hospitable to machinery, or humans.

In addition to the previous factors, Mars will be at its closest point to Earth today, July 31, 2018. It will be only 35.8 million miles (57.6 million km) away from us. Mars is at its closest point about every two years. When Mars is on the other side of the Sun, it is about 250 million miles (401 million km) away. For that reason, any mission to Mars will have to be precisely timed to reach our neighboring planet in the shortest time, but it will still take months to make the journey.

With all of the challenges of reaching and perhaps colonizing Mars, the work goes on to achieve that goal. Some, such as Elon Musk, are suggesting “terraforming” Mars. That is, modifying the climate to make it hospitable to earthlings. That would require raising the climate temperature, thickening the thin atmosphere, and having a stable supply of liquid water, among other things. Elon Musk suggested a method of doing that which involves bombing the polar ice caps with explosives. It sounds like science fiction, and a new report from two leading scientists, Bruce Jakosky of NASA and Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University suggest that it is. Their study published in Nature Astronomy concludes that “with current technology, we just don’t see that there are any viable options” for terraforming Mars.

What we need to remember as we consider all of this, is that God has given us a planet that has all of the right conditions for us to live on and enjoy. He has already “terraformed” it for us, and we need to protect that gift and use it wisely. In the meantime, we can enjoy the optimum Martian viewing opportunity He provided for us to see the “red planet” right now.
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Driving to Mars in a Red Convertible

Driving to Mars
On February 6 SpaceX launched a red Tesla roadster convertible owned by billionaire CEO Elon Musk in a trajectory toward Mars. The photo from an onboard camera shows the dummy driver leaving Earth and driving to Mars.

Will the car ever get there? Astronomers say that it will go into orbit around the Sun and eventually come to the vicinity of Mars. However, it will probably not come very close to the planet depending on the timing of orbits. It has no onboard thrusters to adjust its direction for driving to Mars. At any rate, it will take several months to arrive anywhere near Mars. The closest Mars ever comes to Earth is 33 million miles (54.6 million kilometers). It takes a long time to “drive” that far.

Musk has been promoting the idea of colonizing Mars. His company has developed the world’s most powerful space rocket, the Falcon Heavy Rocket, which they used to launch Musk’s car. However, Mr. Musk doesn’t seem to be doing much to solve the problems of interplanetary space travel. For humans to survive on long space flights away from the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, will require much more effort than launching them into space.

Earth has been designed to shield us from the deadly effects of space. Of course, the vacuum of space would be deadly to anyone not in a pressurized suit or cabin. That problem has been solved to allow astronauts to live in the International Space Station and make spacewalks. If the tires on the car were pressurized, I suspect they would have blown out by now. Another problem is food, medicine, and other supplies. Resupply launches provide for the needs of people on the ISS, but that would not be practical for people traveling to or colonizing Mars.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is cosmic radiation and debris coming from outer space. Earth’s atmosphere is designed to protect us from those things. The space station in low Earth orbit is still somewhat within the magnetic field of Earth. In outer space, the only protection is what you can take with you. Apparently, from what Elon Musk posted on Twitter, his car was headed on a dangerous trip into the asteroid belt beyond Mars.

Musk said in a news conference that the car was “just going to be out there in space for maybe millions or billions of years.” That may be doubtful. Musk admitted that SpaceX had not tested the materials of the red convertible for space endurance. The mannequin space traveler is wearing an authentic space suit, but the car is made of the usual materials. Even if the car avoids major collisions with asteroids, it will become riddled with pockmarks from micrometeorites. Leather, fabrics, plastics, and even the carbon-fiber frame will break down from exposure to unfiltered sunlight and cosmic radiation. The carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen bonds in those materials will break down, and the car will fall apart. At least one scientist, William Carroll, a chemist at Indiana University and an expert on plastics and organic molecules, said, it won’t last a year in space.

One more thing to note is that the radio in the car was playing David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity.” However, sound can’t travel through a vacuum, and since there is no atmosphere in space, the radio is playing the sound of silence. The battery will run down in a short time anyway. Driving to Mars is going to be a challenge, even in a well-designed spaceship. The need for power, food, protection from the elements and many other things, make us very happy to live on planet Earth. It almost seems as if Someone designed this place for us to call “home.”
–Roland Earnst © 20018

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