The ‘Red Planet’ drops in for a visit
August 14, 2003
For amateur and professional astronomers, the early hours of Aug. 27 will be a red-letter day – Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been in approximately 60,000 years, according to NASA.
While nearly 34.65 million miles away from the Earth may not seem close, a modest telescope should allow viewers to see detail in the Mars – especially in higher elevations like Truckee and Tahoe – said Sierra College Laboratory and Observatory Director David Kenyon.
According to NASA, Mars was approximately five times farther from Earth six months ago.
Kenyon said because Mars is such a small planet, it is usually hard for scientists to study it. “From the standpoint of science, it’s a good opportunity to study Mars,” he said. However, “It’s a bit more of a public and media event. It’s more of an opportunity to bring people out.”
“With a modest telescope or good pair of binoculars, you should be able to see the dust storms and polar caps,” Kenyon said. “There is a chance you could see the peaks of the volcanoes,” he added.
According to Kenyon, the reason the two planets are so close is that their orbits around the sun are not perfectly round. He said each orbit is an ellipse, and Aug. 27 will be when Earth is farthest away from the sun and Mars is closest. Earth and Mars are also on the same side, making for a very rare occurrence.
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Also, Kenyon said, “It’s really only the other object than the moon that you can see surface detail.”
To put it into perspective, Kenyon said, “This is a once-in-a-human-existence opportunity. Mars hasn’t been this close in two ice ages.”
Kenyon suggested viewing Mars “in the last couple weeks of August or the first couple weeks in September.” Right now, he said, Mars rises at 9 p.m., and it is the brightest object to the right of the moon.
Later this month, the best viewing will be between midnight and 2 a.m., looking southeast and approximately 20-30 percent above the horizon. Aug. 27 will also be a new moon, so the sky will be very dark.
Although it should be the brightest object in the sky on the 27th, Kenyon said a good way to find Mars is to look south, hold your arm straight out against the horizon, and make a fist. He said a fist-width is about 10 percent, so he said to look “about 3-4 fist-widths above the south horizon.”
Kenyon also suggested mounting a telescope to a tripod or leaning it against a tree or fence, and viewing Mars for an extended amount of time. “Don’t just point your telescope or binoculars and get a quick glance,” he said.
If you look at the planet longer, he said, you should see movement in the dust clouds, and the planet will move in and out of focus. When it comes into focus, he said, “There will be wonderful, crisp views.”
For more information on Mars and the best ways to view it this month, visit http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov.
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