Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Real Deal on Mars

Real Deal on Mars
by Dave Adalian

If you were hoping to see Mars appear the size of a full moon last August, as a widely circulated hoax email suggested it would, no doubt you were very much disappointed.

Some prankster decided for reasons known only to himself to twist information about the close pass of Mars back in 2003 to make it sound as though the Red Planet would make an impossibly close pass by Earth this summer.

Thankfully, it didn’t happen. Had Mars come close as that hoax email described, the resulting disruption to Earth would have spelled disaster.

The real facts are these: Back in August 2003, Mars came closer to Earth than it has during recorded human history, about 34.6 million miles. For those lucky enough to get a look at the God of War through a telescope at 100X magnification during that close approach, its disk appeared the same relative size as a full moon does when viewed with the naked eye.

As I said in this space during summer of 2003, in a scope Mars looked like a pea in a Petri dish, although a beautiful one with reddish planes, dark surface features and clouds obscuring the southern pole -- in other words, like an alien planet that we still cannot be sure doesn’t harbor life of some kind.

If you missed it during summer 2003, it won’t be as close again until 2287. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a spectacular one at that.

But life is as full of second chances as it is once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Mars is coming in for another close pass this month, one of 40.3 million miles, a mere 4.3 million miles further away than in 2003. Bumping up the magnification to about 125X will give that full-moon effect once more. And, yes, it will be a breathtaking sight to behold.

Opposition, when Mars rises at sunset, will happen on Nov. 7, but the closest pass will come two nights before Halloween, when a pumpkin-colored Mars will rise about 6:30 to fly high in the east and come closest at about 8:25 p.m. It will be shining high and bright still when trick-o’-treaters take to the streets on Halloween.

Tonight, Mars is in the east over the trees by about 9 o’clock. If you watch night by night, you’ll see it rise earlier and double in brightness by October’s end as autumn’s warmth fails.


Join the Tulare Astronomical Association Friday, Oct. 21, 8-10 p.m., for a close-up look at the Angry Red Planet at the Arthur L. Purcell Observatory, 9242 Ave. 184, 2.1 miles west of Highway 99. Information and directions: