Valles Marineris, the Grand Canyon of Mars. Photo by NASA.
Valles Marineris, the Grand Canyon of Mars. Photo by NASA.

This column was provided by San Benito County resident and amateur astronomer David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.


As a self-proclaimed amateur astronomer I feel that Christmas has come early for me this year.  No, I didn’t receive any of my boxed presents early.  But I did receive one of the most famous views in the sky—the red planet Mars. All I have to do is look up into the east-northeast sky soon after sunset and there it is.

Now I say the “red” planet of Mars but anyone can look up and see Mars as a yellowish/orange color in the sky, but it just wouldn’t sound right calling it the yellowish/orange planet.  Maybe we can call it the “campfire-colored” planet. Actually you can call it any color you want, you won’t be wrong.   

Man always exaggerates when handing out colors to objects, and animals whether it’s a beautiful bird or an object in the sky. I have a habit of exaggerating at times myself. After all, I did sell real estate for a living.

You won’t want to miss the red planet this month because it won’t look this good again for two years.  

On Dec. 8 Mars lies opposite the sun to the Earth, but the elliptical orbit had Mars nearest to Earth on Nov. 30 when it reached its maximum magnitude of -1.9 and dims to -1.3. That information won’t make any difference to us though, just get out there with your telescope and take advantage of the every other year closeness of the planet.

Depending on what size scope you have will determine what you get to see of Mars. And don’t wait until next month to take your first look; there is much to see now, the first week in December.  

The most prominent surface feature you will most likely see are the polar ice caps. With the exception of the ice caps, the easiest Martian feature for observers to identify is the large dark triangular feature named Syrtis Major. And don’t miss the clouds. All Martian clouds are temporary.

They usually associate with a specific area, and Mars’ rotation carries them along its trip around the red planet’s axis. 

Mars is famous for dust storms. These dust storms occur more often when Mars lies closest to the sun and the heating is greatest. Because this year Mars’ 2022 perihelion isn’t one of its closest to the sun, astronomers don’t expect much in the way of global storms. 

I’m sure by now almost everyone has seen the news spreading around on Facebook that Mars will get the size of the Moon on its close visit to the Earth. This statement first appeared in mid-2003. If you see Mars that big in the sky in your backyard you won’t have time to admire it very long, because life as we know it will be over soon, very soon. Someone’s idea of an internet joke I guess.

Although Mars will appear its brightest illumination on Nov. 30, it will look almost as bright a couple of weeks before and after that. The closeness of the planet isn’t like a solar eclipse that is over in minutes. So if you are clouded out one night, don’t worry, you will have plenty of time to view the red planet later on. 

On Dec. 7 another  interesting occurrence this month will be the complete occultation between the full moon and Mars where the moon will pass over (occult) Mars. Don’t worry Mars will show up again on the other side of the moon an hour later. The disappearance of Mars starts at 6:35 p.m. and reappears unharmed at 7:40 p.m. So keep an eye out for us on Facebook for our setup location on that evening. You don’t have to bring anything except your eyes. Well maybe some donuts. We’ll provide the rest. 


December bonus:

If the skies are going to put on a great show in your own backyard, then why not go out and watch?  The Geminids meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 but is bothered by the moonlight. The showers actually begin around the 12th of the month and end on the 16th.  Looking earlier in the month might yield better results. 

Meteor showers are one of the easiest events in the night sky to watch.  You don’t need anything but a lounge chair, some heavy clothing/sleeping bag, some good hot chocolate/coffee, and maybe some good friends or family. I usually would put my dog, Ally, in the house because she didn’t care about the showers; she just wants to play fetch and yearn for a little attention.

As we do every Christmas, it’s fun to find your own Christmas tree in the night sky. With all those stars up there it shouldn’t take much imagination to come up with something clever. 

I hope you all have a great holiday, and don’t forget to take some time out of your hectic season to enjoy the heavens. It just might slow your hurried mind down a little.  

Clear skies, merry Christmas, and happy new year.


What’s up this month: 

Dec. 1: Moon passes 3° south of Neptune

Dec. 1: Moon passed 3° south of Jupiter

Dec. 5: Moon passes 0.7° north of Uranus

Dec. 7: Moon Occultation of Mars

Dec. 7: Full Moon

Dec. 11: Moon is at apogee (252,195miles from Earth)

Dec. 14: Geminids meteor shower peaks

Dec. 16: Last Quarter Moon

Dec. 21: Winter solstice occurs

Dec. 21: Mars passes 8° north of Aldebaran 

Dec. 23: New Moon occurs

Dec. 24: Moon is at perigee (222,619 miles from Earth

Dec. 24: Moon passes 3°  south of Venus

Dec. 24: Moon passed 4° south of Mercury

Dec. 26: Moon passes 4° south of Saturn

Dec. 28: Moon passes 3° south of Neptune

Dec. 29: Mercury passes 1.4° north of Venus

Dec. 29: Moon passed 2° south of Jupiter`

Dec. 29: First Quarter Moon 


I am excited to bring you my monthly article on my favorite subject; Astronomy. My interest started in the seventh grade when my Mother, no I mean Santa, brought me my first telescope, a 3" Refractor....