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At 21:00 on Wednesday, 14 October, the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy (University of Amsterdam) is organising a virtual viewing evening of the opposition of Mars. On that evening, the red planet will be exactly opposite the sun as viewed from the Earth. The planet will also be high in the night sky. The next such perfect opportunity to observe it will not happen for another thirty years.

In principle, a Mars opposition is not especially unusual since it is a phenomenon that occurs every 780 days. However, the opposition of 2020 deserves an honorary mention, because all three indicators used by astronomers are on ‘green’ this year. On 14 October, Mars will be bright (magnitude -2.4), of good visible size (22 arcseconds) and its height in the night sky will be reasonable (43 degrees). According to the website, the next ‘perfect’ oppositions will not occur until 2052 and 2099.

As Mars will still be more than 60 million kilometres from Earth, Esther Hanko, coordinator of public activities at the Anton Pannekoek Institute of Astronomy (University of Amsterdam) is eager to downplay expectations: “With the naked eye, the planet looks like an orange-red dot. It’s a slightly larger spot seen through binoculars. But with a good telescope like we have at the institute, you can see dark and light areas and a white polar cap. But it will never be as beautiful or as clear as the photos taken by Mars probes or the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Mars gefotografeerd met een amateurtelescoop vanuit Amsterdam
Mars gefotografeerd vanuit Amsterdam, met een bescheiden amateurtelescoop (c) Michèl Demeij Vermeulen

In October, Mars is moving with the constellation of Pisces. The planet rises in the East in the evening, is high in the South at around midnight and sets in the West in the early morning. In the coming months, Mars will be rising increasingly earlier. Although this is good for observers, it will gradually look smaller as it moves away from us.

Livestream on Youtube

In view of the restrictions due to coronavirus, the University of Amsterdam has decided to view and comment on the Mars opposition via its own livestream on YouTube. At 21:00 on Wednesday, 14 October, three doctoral researchers will be on hand to provide commentary on the images captured by a telescope in the Anton Pannekoek Institute. The young researchers will explain all about our nearest neighbour and answer the public’s questions about the red planet. The chat function on YouTube can be used to submit questions. The ‘pre-programme’ will feature Jupiter and Saturn. In the event of poor weather, recordings made earlier will be shown.

Start of virtual stargazing season

For the Anton Pannekoek Institute, the Mars livestream marks the start of a virtual stargazing season. There will also be virtual stargazing nights on 24 October (Nacht van de Nacht/Night of the Night), 29 November, 14 December (Geminids meteor shower), 22 January (extra early, especially for children), 19 February and 19 March (Landelijke Sterrenkijkdagen/National Stargazing Days). The Anton Pannekoek Institute website features times, further details and changes.