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Mars About To Make Closest Pass In 5000 Years


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Mars About To Make Closest Pass In 5000 Years

By Martin Merzer

Miami Herald


On Aug. 27, Mars will be 'only' 34,646,418 miles away.

Talk about once-in-a-lifetime visits: During the next few weeks, our planetary neighbor -- Mars -- glides ever closer, ultimately making its nearest approach to Earth in all of recorded history.

''The last time people looked up and saw this, Neanderthal man saw it,'' said Jack Horkheimer, executive director of the planetarium at the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium. ``This is going to be so stunning.''

The reason: By Aug. 27, Mars will be ''only'' 34,646,418 miles away, pretty much the galactic equivalent of idling in our driveway. With a little bit of luck, the view will be spectacular.

And you don't have to wait until the end of the month. Mars already is much closer and appears much brighter and larger in the southeast sky than it did at the beginning of July, when it was 52 million miles away.

Observers have been giving the light show glowing reviews. Astronomers say you have never seen anything like this. Neither have your parents. Or their parents. Or . . . well, you get the idea.

All experts agree that Mars hasn't been this close in at least 5,000 years. Most astronomical calculations raise those estimates to 59,619 years.

''I've already been watching, and over the next several weeks it will be getting bigger and brighter,'' said astronomer David Menke of Plantation, former director of the Buehler Planetarium on the Broward Community College campus in Davie. ``It will just be fabulous.''


Every day brings Mars closer, the result of a gravitational duet around the sun that produces neighborly visits every 26 months but rarely such close encounters.

The condition that will occur on Aug. 27 is called ''opposition'' -- when the sun, Earth and Mars form a straight line, bringing Mars and Earth relatively close.

But the elliptical orbits of planets make some oppositions closer than others.

This one is so close that sky watchers using nothing but their eyes might be able to tell if Mars is awash in dust storms. It turns out that the Red Planet is not always so red, especially when viewed from Earth.

''If it appears to be mostly gold with no hint of ruby whatsoever, you're probably seeing a dust storm on the planet,'' Horkheimer said.

''If you see a hint of red with the naked eye, you're seeing the surface,'' he said.

And if you use even an inexpensive, 100-power telescope, you might be able to discern Mars' southern ice cap -- though Earth's shimmering atmosphere often frustrates viewers.

Long a source of fascination for Earthlings, Mars continues to intrigue scientists, who have recently determined that the ice cap is made from water rather than frozen carbon dioxide.

That, of course, raises profound new questions: How much water once existed on Mars? How much still exists underground? What does this imply about the prospect of life on Mars?


A new squadron of scientific probes -- including two ground rovers -- is en route to the planet, and experts hope the devices will help unravel some of these mysteries. In addition, visionaries still muse about human colonization of Earth's closest planetary neighbor.

''Mars has always captured our imaginations,'' said Menke, who teaches at Coral Springs High School. ``Its blood-red color made it representative of the god of war and there's always been a lot of folk lore associated with Mars.''

So, you'll probably want to catch this opportunity rather than wait for the next ''perfect opposition'' of Earth and Mars.

That one comes along on Aug. 28 . . . 2287.


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