This is a big week on the planet Mars. For one thing, today is the anniversary of the first successful landing on the Red Planet. Viking 1 touched down in 1976 and operated for more than six years. It revealed a lot about the planet’s rocks and soil, its weather, and its history. One of its instruments even found evidence of microscopic life, although most scientists refuted the finding.
And tomorrow marks the solstice on Mars — the start of winter in the northern hemisphere and summer in the southern hemisphere.
Mars has seasons for the same reason that Earth does — it’s tilted on its axis. But Mars’s distance from the Sun varies much more dramatically than Earth’s does, so there’s a bigger difference in seasonal climate. Right now, Mars is close to the Sun. The extra solar energy means that winter is milder in the north than the south, while southern summer is hotter than in the north. Of course, that’s all relative — temperatures seldom climb above freezing.
The new season will last about 154 days — only northern autumn is shorter. And those are Mars days, which are about 40 minutes longer than Earth days — extra time to enjoy a mild winter climate.
Mars is easy to pick out tonight because it snuggles close to the Moon. They climb into good view by about 2 a.m., and are high in the sky at first light. Mars looks like a bright orange star to the lower left of the Moon.
Script by Damond Benningfield