We are an inquisitive breed, predisposed to get curious not only about the world around us but also about other humans with whom we share this space. As a species, our collective curiosity has spawned a growing fascination towards two of our closest celestial objects – the Moon and Mars. While Mars resembles the secretive friend who lives around the corner, the Moon is more like the ‘girl next door’ – charming, elegant and beautiful. They have inspired a plethora of fictionalized books and movies – demonstrating our unending obsession with them. It’s no wonder that a once-in-a-lifetime event, in which a close encounter with Mars coincides with the longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century, has garnered intense anticipation from not only scientists and researchers but also from skygazers around the globe.
Since humans have been actively searching for extra-terrestrial life in the universe, Mars, the fourth distant planet from the Sun, has always been in the center of attention. Earth has collectively launched fourteen missions that have attempted to gather information about the red planet. Only two out of those, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, are currently sweeping the surface of the planet. Their main objective lies in collecting data and transmitting them back to earth for extended research. As the rovers analyze soil and rock samples and measure atmospheric data, scientists on earth focus on using such information to hypothesize about the history of the planet. Although scientists have confirmed the intermittent flow of liquid water on the surface and the occurrence of rainfall in the past, they have also deemed the present Martian soil to be too dry to support life.
Although we have managed to land on it, it hasn’t dented the curiosity that we hold for our only natural satellite, the Moon. Majority of the research surrounding the Moon has also focused on investigating its history – with hopes of finding hospitable environmental conditions in its past. A recent study has claimed that historical conditions on the surface of the moon, one dating back 4 billion years and the other 3.5 billion years, were sufficient to support simple life forms.
However, such innocuous curiosity has blossomed into a full-blown obsession. Being the second most hospitable planet on Earth, Mars has been on the forefront of being colonized by the government and private agencies. Agencies such as NASA, Roscosmos, SpaceX, Mars One, and Boeing have all shown interest in the prospect of developing human colonies on Mars. The CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, has planned for an unmanned Mars landing in 2022 and a manned Mars landing in 2024.
This obsession brings us back to the penultimate week of July 2018, which is about to witness an astronomical event of rare possibility. Mars is set to come closest to our planet in 15 years, a distance of 35.8 million miles between them. As dust reflects sunlight, the current dust storm engulfing Mars will make the planet appear even redder. This event will coincide with a total lunar eclipse, in which the Sun, Earth, and the Moon align in a straight line to cast Earth’s shadow on the moon. To top it all off, the Moon will take on a red color itself, as the light that illuminated it will pass through Earth’s top atmosphere. The prospect of a ‘Blood Moon’ followed by a lunar eclipse, amidst the presence of a brighter Mars in the background is sure to set stargazers into a frenzy – and hopefully satiate their obsession with these planets for the time being.