Calgary

Mars dominates the July night sky

Calgary amateur astronomer Alan Dyer explains why July is the best month to watch Mars in the dark night sky.

But keep an eye out for Venus and the Milky Way, too

A view of Mars, left, and the Milky Way, as shot by Alan Dyer on Monday. This was taken near Gleichen, Alta., but the view is the same anywhere in Western Canada. (Image © Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.co)

Alan Dyer is a stargazer from way back, but this month, his focus turns to the red planet.

The Calgary author, journalist, amateur astronomer and photographer told The Homestretch that Earth's heavenly neighbour is currently a must-see in the night sky. 

"The real star of the show … is Mars," Dyer said.

The reason is that like a budding Hollywood star landing a juicy part in a Star Wars sequel, Mars has landed in the planetary sweet spot.

​"We're closer to Mars than we've been for the last 15 years, so it's especially bright. And Mars is the red planet, and you can tell that because it does look very sort of orangy coming up," Dyer said.

This image taken on June 17 illustrates the planet-wide dust storm enveloping Mars. Due to the storm, Mars appears blurry and devoid of surface features when seen through a telescope. (Submitted by Damian Peach)

How to look at it

Even better, unlike a solar eclipse, there is no physical peril involved in looking up in the night sky for Mars.

"Just [use a] naked eye to get a really good look. However, of course, we're hoping over the next month or two, with Mars being so close to us, that it will look especially good in a telescope," Dyer added.

The catch? The weather can be challenging when it comes to viewing planets — particular when the weather Dyer is most concerned with is 57 million kilometres away.

"Unfortunately, even though we're getting a lot of clear nights here, the weather on Mars is bad," Dyer said.

"There's a dust storm happening on Mars. It blew up about three weeks ago, and on Mars, those things can go global and cover the entire planet!

"We're hoping the Martian weather will clear up a little later this summer. And certainly come August, end of July and throughout August, that's when Mars will be up earlier, more prime time, still very close to us — especially July 31, when it is at its closest," he said.

Milky Way in view

While Mars figures to dominate the night sky for a few more weeks, let's face it: the sky is pretty vast. 

One of the best late-night celestial party crashers is also one of the best known.

"It's not until midnight or so before it's dark enough to really see the Milky Way, but this for the next few nights … have a look, and you'll see this grey misty band of light across the sky. It's our galaxy."

A 360° panorama of the night sky and prairie landscape in southwest Saskatchewan. This image of the Milky Way was shot by Alan Dyer in 2015. (Alan Dyer/NCC)

Seek out a dark sky location

Dyer says summer nights are a perfect opportunity to explore the night skies, by ditching city lights for the outskirts of town.

"[Drive to] a provincial park or county park or something like that where you can set up and not bother people and not trespass, of course, and be safe.

"Certainly if you want to get a good look at the dark night sky, you've got to get out of the city lights. The next week or so, it's a perfect time for the Milky Way.

"Mars will be bright all summer long. And then next month, around this time is when the dark skies will return without the moon and [then] we'll get [another] great view of the Milky Way."

Alan Dyer with the new Canadian stamp that features his photograph of the northern lights. Dyer shot the photo in 2016 in Churchill, Man. (Image © Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

Conjunction on the horizon

As the moon returns over the weekend, it will be a waxing crescent moon. On Sunday night, it will be closer to Venus in the night sky than at any other time all summer.

What that means is that all amateur astronomers armed with a camera should circle Sunday night on their celestial calendar.

"If you can find yourself a nice scenic spot, you can get a nice picture of the crescent moon beside Venus," Dyer said.

The planet Venus was photographed after being eclipsed by crescent moon in Amman, Jordan, on June 18, 2007. (Nader Daoud/Associated Press)

With files from The Homestretch.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca

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