Mars certainly puts on a great showing for anyone observing with their eyes alone – and it can be fascinating to follow its gradual movement against the starry background from night to night, the loop it describes as the Earth overtakes it.
Binoculars will help to emphasise the planet’s rusty orange colour but to see any detail you will need to look through a reasonable size amateur telescope. And even then, don’t expect to see a lot – for at its best, Mars only ever appears half the diameter of the giant planet Jupiter.
You will need a reasonable magnification to see any detail on Mars – at least 40x – the actual power you can use will depend on the atmospheric conditions, or “seeing”, and the size of telescope you are using. At best, magnification of 40x will show an image of Mars the size of an orange viewed with the eye alone across the length of a tennis court.
You may be able to make out dark markings on Mars and what is left of the southern polar cap. You may even be able to follow the rotation of Mars – its day is similar in length to our own.
To keep Mars in your telescope’s field of view as the Earth rotates, a planetary observer’s telescope will probably have a motorised drive to turn it. Many modern telescopes today have mini computers in their drives which will actually find Mars – and virtually anything else in the sky – for you.
Some amateur astronomers today are using CCD cameras, digital cameras and even webcams to record images of Mars. With the aid of computer processing, remarkable amounts of details can be seen on many of these. A simple camera designed for such photography is Meade’s Lunar Planetary Imager.
Mars was at its closest for centuries in 2003 and will not come as close again until 28 August 2287. But in 1924 it was only 12,500 miles (20,000 km) farther away.
Since 2003, a silly email has been doing the rounds warning that Mars will appear as big as the Moon in the sky.