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Talk about a once in a lifetime opportunity!


Frosty white water ice clouds and swirling orange dust storms above a vivid rusty landscape reveal Mars as a dynamic planet in this sharpest view ever obtained by an Earth-based telescope.

 

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This month, Earth is catching up with Mars, an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history.  Due to the way Jupiter's gravity tugs on Mars and perturbs its orbit, astronomers can only be certain that Mars has not come this close to Earth in the last 5,000 years but it may be as long as 60,000 years.

On August 27, 2003, the fourth rock from the sun will be less than 55.76 million kilometers (34.65 million miles) away from the Earth and will be (next to the moon) the brightest object in the night sky. In comparison to the space between your house and your neighbor's yard, that may seem like a large distance, but Mars was about five times that distance from Earth only six months ago.

Think of Earth and Mars as two race cars going around a track. Earth is on a race track that is inside the track that Mars goes around, and neither track is perfectly circular. There is one place where the two race tracks are closest together. When Earth and Mars are at that place simultaneously, it is an unusually close approach, referred to as a 'perihelic opposition'.

Opposition is a term used when Earth and another planet are lined up in the same direction from the Sun. The term perihelic comes from perihelion, the point of orbit in which a celestial body is closest to the Sun. This August, Mars will reach its perihelion and be in line with Earth and the Sun at the same time.

The average opposition occurs about every two years, when Earth laps Mars on its orbit around the Sun. In 1995, the opposition brought Mars 101.1 million kilometers (62.8 million miles) from the Earth, twice as far as this most recent approach.

Don't be deceived. You're not going to go outside and see some big red ball in the sky. It will look like a bright red star.

 Tracking the "red star's" movement from week to week is yet another way to appreciate this rare occasion, since Mars appears to dart across the sky in comparison to more distant planets, such as Jupiter.

Although Mars will be closest on August 27, astronomers suggest viewing the planet earlier, as dust storm season is just beginning on the red planet and can obstruct a more detailed view.

Whether you are viewing through a telescope, glancing through a pair of binoculars, or star-gazing outside the city, be sure to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for Mars will not make another neighborly visit this close until 2287.
 

It will attain a magnitude of -2.9 and will appear 25.11 arc seconds wide. At a modest 75-power magnification, Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye.
( In checking with our local retailer, that sells four different models of telescopes, they were all capable of achieving this magnification).

So, mark your calendar to see Mars grow progressively brighter and brighter throughout the month. Share this with your children and grandchildren. No one alive today will ever see this again.

 

 




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