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Sanibel Stargazing: Magnificent Mars

By Staff | Mar 11, 2010

The dry clear winter nights we have been experiencing treat us with incredible stargazing opportunities. If you gaze upward to the night sky and look to the east in the early evening, you should see a bright reddish object. This object that might look like a bright red star is actually Mars, the fourth planet out from our Sun.

Famous for its reddish tint, this is all reflected light as opposed to starlight that is generated from the star itself. Mars will be traveling from east to west this winter being directly overhead around midnight in March. Perhaps more than any other planet Mars has been immortalized in myth, literature and most notably the annals of science fiction.

Ancient cultures, thousands of years ago, were able to observe that the Sun, Moon and planets traveled in the same path of the sky from east to west; today this path of the sky is known as the ecliptic. Ancient cultures divided this path of the sky into twelve areas or constellations and these twelve constellations represent the twelve signs of the Zodiac. If you get familiar with these constellations and every so often you see a bright object in that area of the sky that you don’t recall being part of that particular constellation, then you can safely assume it must be a planet. This winter, Mars will be travelling within the vicinity of Gemini just to the east of the twin stars Castor and Pollux.

The word “planet” comes to us from the ancient Greeks and their word for wanderer. Planets differ from stars in that they change their position in relation to each other and to the greater number of stars that move about the sky maintaining their same position in relation to other stars. The ancient Greeks called Mars Areos Aster, the star of Ares, their God of War. The reddish hue of Mars, due to the iron oxides in the Martian soil, has led cultures throughout time to label Mars symbolically with its dramatic color.

In Roman mythology, the bright red planet signifies energy, ardor and aggression. They referred to it as “the little evil one” and it represented the God of fire and war. The earliest recorded naming of Mars is credited to ancient Babylonians – 6,000 years ago – who called Mars Negral, their deity of Fire, War and destruction. Greeks also called Mars Pyroeis, meaning fiery. In Hindu Mythology Mars is known as Mangala. Ancient Egyptians referred to Mars as Horus the Red while Hebrews labeled Mars as Ma’adim, “the one who blushes.” One of the largest canyons on Mars is today classified as Ma’adim Vallis. Ancient Chinese called Mars the Fire Star, a name based on the ancient mythological cycle of five elements.

Today, we can log onto the Internet and see images from the Mars Rover mission, images being sent to us from this 4,225 mile diameter planet that is on the average 140 million miles away from us. The Spirit Rover, currently parked for the winter when Martian temperatures can drop to -200 degrees Fahrenheit, is six years into a mission originally planned for three months. The Mars Exploration Rover Mission has been collecting geological information about Mars and will be investigating the makeup of its internal core to learn more about the elements within Mars, its origin and the formation of our Solar System.

Today, science often trumps mythology and mystery, but as you gaze upward at the night sky try to see the objects above you through the eyes of ancient cultures. Let your imagination go, enjoy the spectacles, the colors and the magic.

(Richard Finkel is an Environmental Educator with Captiva Cruises and conducts educational programs including the Sailing Under the Stars Cruise. Comments or questions can be addressed to captivacruises@info.com.)