How to get the best up-close look at Mars this month

U of A astrophysicist provides tips to get the clearest views of the red planet and other celestial neighbours during August.


If you missed the view of Mars earlier this week while it was closer to Earth than it has been in years, don’t despair—the August night sky still offers great views of the red planet and some of its celestial cousins.

“August is a good month for stargazing,” said Sharon Morsink, director of the University of Alberta’s Astronomical Observatory in the Faculty of Science. “The sky has cycles and the planets visit different parts of the skies at different times of the year, and this year it’s August’s turn.”


How to get the best views

U of A astrophysicist Sharon Morsink offers these tips:

  • Look to the southeastern skies for Mars. The planet will be low in the sky, so get up high to avoid views blocked by trees and buildings. “Find a field or an open space, or go to the roof of an apartment building.”

  • Avoid light pollution. Leave the city to do some stargazing. Elk Island National Park, for instance, is hosting viewing of the Perseid meteor shower Aug. 11.

  • Look through a good telescope. For the best views, peer through the powerful telescopes at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Observatory at Telus World of Science (open every clear evening in August and until 2 a.m. Aug. 3 and 4 for viewing Mars) or the U of A observatory, open Aug. 16 from 9 to 10 p.m.

At 57 million kilometres away, Mars is still relatively close to Earth—about half its typical distance, Morsink said.

“As one of our closest neighbours in the sky, Mars is probably the most Earth-like planet: it has water, it’s got a lot of features which are somehow familiar to what we have here, except that it hasn’t managed to hold onto its atmosphere. It’s possible to look at Mars and be in awe.”

Its reddish glow can be seen with the naked eye, and because it is close to Earth, it will appear larger and brighter than usual. Saturn and Jupiter are also shining brightly this time of year, offering good views through a telescope.

“We can see a lot more features, like the little moons that orbit Jupiter and the rings around Saturn,” Morsink said.

And as the month progresses, the best viewing times won’t be as late, gradually dropping from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m., then to 8 p.m. by month’s end. Viewing Saturn will be optimal in September as the planet moves into a darker fall sky.

The annual Perseid meteor shower—which occurs only at this time of year—will also spangle the night skies Aug. 11 to 13, she noted. Made up of debris left behind by comets, the meteors show as light streaks across the sky and are best viewed outside the city, away from light pollution.

“What happens is typically you’ll see one meteor per minute as a streak of light across the sky, and the show can last for hours,” Morsink said. “It’s like constantly seeing shooting stars.”

Viewing will be especially good this year because the moon is crescent-shaped and won’t dim the skies with its full light, she added.