The red planet is big and bright and casting its glow all night long this week. It is just in time for the fall foliage season most of us in the United States and elsewhere in the north are experiencing.

But what would you call the color of Mars?

It’s not really “red,” but it certainly reflects sunlight in the red end of the spectrum. This may depend somewhat on your eyes and sky conditions, but, to me, it appears more of a golden red-orange to the naked eye.

Mars is currently in one of its closer approaches to the Earth, which you should appreciate while you can. Mars circles the sun about every two Earth years but varies considerably with how near it approaches.

Mars was at its closest point to the Earth on Oct. 6, and will be at opposition with the sun on Oct. 13. That means Mars is directly opposite from the sun in the sky, rising as the sun sets and setting when the sun rises.

In even a small telescope magnifying about 50x to 100x, you can detect Mars as a disc, although it is quite tiny. Still, it is an amazing sight in the eyepiece even if it is so small. You can see the small disc of Mars, likely with faint stars in the background (unless you have a lot of light pollution). Imagine you are in a spacecraft nearing Mars.

If your telescope can handle higher magnifications, and the seeing is good (steady air), you should be able to glimpse dark smudges on the disc and a very small and very white south polar cap.

The “smudges” are referred to as maria, and are fairly permanent markings that you may have seen in photographs. The maria are named and charted on Mars maps. You can even purchase Mars globes, which make for an interesting conversation piece.

The dark features are areas of higher contrast, caused by either darker, basaltic rock or simply where less Martian dust has settled.

The color of Mars in the telescope is striking. The vast Martian deserts are not quite red, perhaps red-orange. To me, it is close to the shade of a peach, more so than a cherry or red apple. Either way, Mars is amazing.

The color is caused by iron oxide chemicals in the dusty soil which resembles rust.

Along with Mars, the colors of autumn can be found in several bright stars visible to the unaided eye and thousands more you can see with a small telescope and a good star map to lead the way.

Perception of color among the stars by our eyes is limited to brighter stars simply because of the way our eyes are structured, at night or in dim light our eyes are less sensitive to color.

The telescope amplifies the brightness, so many more stars are visible that become bright enough to show their shade.

Among red stars, there are red supergiants and red dwarfs. The dwarf stars are very abundant, and none bright enough to see without a telescope.

A couple of wonderful, bright red stars are Antares, well seen on a summer evening, and Betelgeuse, which is most well known as part of Orion, prominent on winter evenings.

Then there is bright yellow-orange Arcturus and bright yellow Capella. You can see these two on opposite sides of the sky as darkness falls in October. Arcturus is in the west, and Capella low in the northwest.

Many more stars are white, or bluish-white.

Early on an October evening, the brilliant star Vega shines with a blue-white light high up in the west; you can also see the bright white stars Deneb and Altair in the west-southwest, and bright white Fomalhaut low in the southeast.

Of course with Mars, we have the planets Jupiter - very bright - and Saturn, a little less bright and to the left, down in the southern sky.

The other morning, I ventured forth onto the deck at around 6 a.m. just in time to make some cats scatter. Looking up, I was delighted to see the very brilliant planet Venus, high in the east, and Mars, which by this time was low in the west. In the southern sky, I had a foretaste of winter but without’s winter’s cold: there was the wonderful constellation Orion, with the bright red star Betelgeuse, white star Rigel and, to the lower-left the brightest star of the night sky, blue-white Sirius.

The waning gibbous moon was nearly overhead.

Enjoy the colors of the night.

The moon is now a waning crescent, visible in the east after midnight. New moon is on Oct. 16.
Keep looking up at the sky!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.