Sky Watchers Get A Close-Up Of Mars


A close encounter with the Red planet is on the horizon.

Sky watchers will get a chance this month to witness something that no human in recorded history has ever seen. Earth is catching up to Mars, an encounter that will result in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history.

"This happens when Mars is opposite the sun in the sky," Kevin Schindler of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff said. "Mars is in opposition every two years or so and when this happens it also makes its closest approach to the earth."

This time of opposition is different than any in history, according to Schindler, who is the Senior Supervisor of public programs at the observatory.

"Since the planets don't have perfect orbits every time there is opposition they are not necessarily the same distance (from one another)," he said. "With this particular opposition, Mars makes its closest approach in 60,000 years -- it's the closest we'll see Mars in our lifetime."

By Aug. 27, Mars will come within 35 million miles of Earth and will be positioned next to the moon. To the naked eye, the two bodies will look the same size.

At the beginning of August, Mars will rise in the east at 10 p.m. and reach its azimuth at about 3 a.m.. By the end of the month when the two planets are the closest, Mars will rise at nightfall and reach it's highest point by shortly after midnight.

"You can easily see it right now," Schindler said. "It's rising just around sunset. If you go out around 9 p.m. and look up in the southwest sky, it looks like a real bright dot with an orangish-reddish color to it. It's easy to see with the naked eye and it will rise a little earlier every night."

Those with telescopes will have an opportunity to see some detail. Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, which have a layer of gas surrounding them, the surface detail of Mars is visible.

"Through a large telescope, you can see detail like the south polar icecap, which is melting, and there are some surface details that you can see pretty easily," Schindler said. "Through a small telescope it looks like a tiny little ball and you can see a little surface detail."

This event is particularly exciting for those who work at Lowell observatory.

"Mars is why the observatory was founded in 1894," Schindler said. "To study Mars and the possibility of life there."

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