“Mars opposition” happens when Earth passes between the Sun and Mars. The event occurs every 779.94 days (roughly two years and two months) and will take place this year on October 13. Mars will appear to be rising in the east as the Sun is setting in the west. It will also be one of the brightest objects in the night sky, second only to Venus among the planets. It may even be visible during the day.
In 1956, Mars was in opposition on September 10 and Robert Conquest commemorated the event with “For the 1956 Opposition of Mars,” written in 1957 and collected in Between Mars and Venus, (1962). Thom Gunn described it as “one of the best poems since the war”:
“Red on the south horizon, brighter than
For fifteen years, the little planet glows,
And brightest yet its kindled themes impose
On the imaginings of man.
War’s omen once. Then source of fate’s firm rays,
Or, punched through the precarious sky,
A hole on hell. And then a dry
Quantum of knowledge merely, cold in space.
“Only in names from legend, history, dream,
The heart showed on its map the regions drawn:
The Horn of Ammon and the Bay of Dawn.
Now, fantasy and knowledge gleam
One red; and by the next close opposition
Observers in the exosphere
Should see it many times as clear,
And by the next one yet, match touch with vision,
“Grasping whatever starts beneath those noons’
Blue-black intensities of sky; on sand
Blood-orange where the blue-green lowlands end;
In thin air; under two small moons;
As spring’s green flux pours down from where the pole is;
Till yellow clouds fade, while blue, higher,
Catch the set sun with faintest fire
Over Arcadia or the Lacus Solis.
“Pure joy of knowledge rides as high as art.
The whole heart cannot keep alive on either.
Wills as of Drake and Shakespeare strike together;
Cultures turn rotten when they part.
True frontiers march with those in the mind’s eye:
--The white sound rising now to fury
In efflux from the hot venturi
As Earth’s close down, gives us the endless skies.”
The exosphere, as mentioned in the second stanza, is the outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Soviets launched Sputnik 1 thirteen months after the Mars opposition, in October 1957, and it reached a maximum altitude of about 583 miles. The lower boundary of the exosphere ranges between 310 and 620 miles, depending on solar activity. Sputnik reached the exosphere, as did subsequent Soviet and American satellites. All would have been able to “see” Mars, as Conquest writes, “many times as clear,” without the Earth's atmospheric distortions. The second of the next two oppositions he describes in the second stanza would have occurred on Dec. 30, 1960. Conquest was rather optimistic. In 1965, Mariner 4 came within 6,000 miles of Mars and took the first close-up photos of its surface. On Dec. 2, 1971, the Soviet Union’s Mars 3 lander made the first successful landing on the planet.
Conquest’s final stanza captures the grand space romance of those years. Science and art, with imagination in common, are the supreme human enterprises: “True frontiers march with those in the mind’s eye.” In a 1969 essay, "Space Odysseys: Apollo 8 and 2001" (The Abomination of Moab, 1979), Conquest quotes that final stanza and writes:
"The idea of space flight, as of adventure and exploration in general, is in a sense child-like. It is in childhood that certain essential components of the adult human being are established--the sense of wonder, intellectual curiosity, the Allfühling. Only those whose adolescence has been such a terrific experience that it has burnt the bridges to childhood are without them, and they are as incomplete as a purely childish adult would be. It is adolescent priggishness and self importance which objects to Apollo."