Mars expected to dazzle us on Christmas Eve
Except for a fat full moon, Mars will be the biggest and brightest object in the sky Monday night. It won't be so large or luminous again until 2016, and it won't take as high a path across the sky until 2040. Mars is the white dot to the right of the moon in the photo. (Associated Press photo / December 24, 2007)
By Robert Nolin | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
December 23, 2007
Nature will unwrap a heavenly present Christmas Eve: A rare celestial event that for once can be easily seen despite the glare of South Florida's unblinking lights.
Except for a fat full moon, Mars will be the biggest and brightest object in the sky Monday night. It won't be so large or luminous again until 2016, and it won't take as high a path across the sky until 2040.
"This will be so bright, it'll just be dazzling," said Jack Horkheimer, director of the Space Transit Planetarium at the Miami Science Museum and host of the public TV program Star Gazer. "You can see how red Mars is: red, orange, gold."
The radiance of the Red Planet occurs because it is in opposition, or directly opposite from the sun, which illuminates it. This happens every 26 months, and in this instance Mars will be a scant 40 million miles from Earth.
"That's about as close as Earth and Mars ever get," said Woodrow Grizzle, astronomer for the South Florida Science Museum, in West Palm Beach. "That's another sort of celestial delight."
The planet will rise, along with the full moon, about an hour after sunset. It can be seen in the eastern sky, just above and to the right of the ascending moon. No telescope is needed, and South Florida's light pollution, among the worst in the nation, won't affect its viewing. Usually, local stargazers must travel into the Everglades, often at ungodly hours, to observe such cosmic phenomena.
"A lot of things, like the meteor showers, we just don't get to see in their full splendor," Grizzle said. "In South Florida we'll have no problem seeing this."
Area skies also are expected to cooperate.
"There will be some clouds in the sky, but it won't be solid overcast," said forecaster Chuck Caracozza with the National Weather Service's office in Miami-Dade County. "As far as visibility is concerned, it looks pretty good."
Mars, named after the Roman god of war, will travel in tandem with the moon throughout the night.
The ever-impish Horkheimer seized upon this fact to have a few Yuletide yuks. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he said, will enjoy a night off.
"Santa won't need Rudolph this year with his red nose to guide his sleigh through the night," the astronomer said. "Rudolph's job is outsourced this year."