Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Mars Makes Close Approach

Mars Makes Close Approach
by Dave Adalian

When practicing a hobby like astronomy once-in-a-lifetime events happen all the time. But, three hours after midnight tonight is a very big event indeed.

At 2:51 a.m. on August 27, Mars will be closer to Earth than during all of recorded human history.

While experts disagree on when Mars was last this close, all estimates put the number at longer than people have been keeping track of things like this or anything else. Reliable numbers put the date at 60,000 years, give or take a long weekend.

In any event, this is a really exciting time for stargazers of all level. Unfortunately, Mars Fever doesn’t seem to be spreading as it should. Maybe it’s because those in the know tend to call big events like this by silly names. We call this one an opposition.

Earth and Mars are like runners on a track, with Earth on the inside lane. About every two years we pass Mars by, and because the orbits aren’t perfect circles, we pass closer at some times than at others. This go-round, the Red Planet will be a scant 34.6 million miles away.

These close passes coincide with Mars’ opposition, the time when the Sun, Earth and Mars align, and Mars sits opposite the Sun in the sky. What makes the 2003 opposition a truly big deal is Mars will be bigger and brighter than any living observer has ever seen it.

To see Mars at its finest, step outside an hour or two after sunset tonight and look a little south of due east. Mars will be unmistakable, shining as the brightest and reddest “star” in the sky.
As an added bonus, on Monday, Sept. 8, Mars will be joined closely in the sky by a nearly full Moon. Any pair of binoculars will really enhance the view.

Of course, the best look at the Red Planet will be in a telescope, but even then don’t expect exactly Hubble-like views. At 100X magnification, Mars will seem like a pea in a petri dish even though it will have the same apparent size as the full Moon when seen unaided. Even so, details like the polar ice caps, clouds and dark regions on and over Mars ruddy surface will be awesomely clear, especially when conditions allow for much higher magnifications.

One way or another, take a look at Mars sometime this week. Those who miss out will never get another opportunity like this one.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on August 26, 2003.