Saturday, August 23, 2003

Red Planet almost in spitting distance

If you miss it, just wait 284 years

By Gail Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Walter Knesel, of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, has spent many sleepless nights lately watching as Mars moves closer to Earth.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
Amateur astronomer Walter Knesel is willing to give up a few hours of sleep this month if it means capturing a once-in-a-lifetime view of Mars.

Knesel, membership chairman for the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, and other Tristate stargazers will have their best chance to view the Red Planet in the days ahead as it draws closer to Earth than it has in more than 60,000 years.

"If you want a good look, it's going to depend on how long you're willing to stay outdoors," Knesel, 43, said. One of his best recent views was at 3 a.m., he said.

Wednesday, Mars and Earth will pass as close as they will get for another 284 years - about 35 million miles apart instead of the usual closest pass of about 60 million miles.

Paul Nohr, astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory Center in Hyde Park, said Mars comes relatively close to Earth every two years or so in what is known as opposition.

This phenomenon is the result of the Earth moving faster in its orbit than Mars, eventually "lapping" the Red Planet, he explained. When the sun, Mars and Earth align, with Earth between the sun and Mars, opposition occurs.

This year's opposition, known as a perihelic, or favorable, opposition, is a bit different because Mars will make its closest approach to the sun - an event Nohr said occurs once every 15 or 16 years.

"It just so happens that this opposition will end up being one of the closest ever," he said.

Nohr and Jim Neumeister, executive director of the observatory, hope the Red Planet's rendezvous with Earth will attract viewers to the observatory's special Mars viewing events, beginning Thursday.

Nohr said the last time people had a chance to view Mars this close was in 1988, when it came within about 37 million miles of Earth.

"We had close to 3,000 people out here then," he said. "We never expected that many to show, so we were pretty overwhelmed."

Neumeister doesn't know whether this year's opposition will draw such a crowd, but said those who come out will have a chance to see the Red Planet through the observatory's 11-inch and 16-inch telescopes. Several smaller telescopes will also be set up on the lawn for extended viewing.

"We want this to be a great educational opportunity, especially for the kids," Neumeister said.

Amazing detail possible

A trip to the observatory may not be in the works for everyone, but amateur astronomer Scott Naylor hopes people will take a look from their back yards.

"Even with a 3-inch telescope, you're going to be able to make out polar caps and major land masses," he said.

A member of Friends of the Observatory, the amateur astronomy club affiliated with the observatory, Naylor, 49, has been observing Mars every night he can for the last several months.

"Right now, it almost looks like a full moon," he said.

Earlier this summer, Mars didn't appear nearly so round as it does now, he said. Lately he has even been able to pick out white splotches he thinks are surface basins.

"People shouldn't wait to see this," Naylor said. "You never know when you're going to have a good clear night to get a great view."

Nohr said even the casual observer without binoculars or telescope will be able to spot Mars, which will look like a brilliant star with a deep orange tint as its brightness continues to increase.

"It's going to be brighter in the sky than anything else besides the moon and Venus," he said. "It'll be pretty hard to miss."

Nohr advises people to watch for Mars this month in the far southern sky. He said the planet will rise shortly after 10 p.m. by the end of the month, but will not be at its brightest until early morning. By early September, he anticipates Mars rising after sunset.

Some astronomers speculate a potential dust storm may be developing on Mars. If such a storm happens to grow and envelope the planet, any hopes for a spectacular view of the surface will be dashed.

Mars madness

As Mars draws closer to Earth each day, more and more people are taking note of its approach. Nohr said the interest expands upon a fascination that has been around for years.

"There's so much mystery about it, so many neat ties we have to Mars," he said. "It's the planet most similar to ours, and it's natural for people to be curious about it."

That curiosity has translated into thousands of books, movies, games and Web sites on Mars, some featuring green-skinned Martians who take over the Earth.

Nohr scoffs at such a thought, but doesn't rule out the possibility that life could exist on Mars.

"I think people have to be realistic and realize if there are any Martians up there, they're probably microbial in nature," he said.

Nohr said he is certain there will be manned missions to Mars in the near future. Lyle Kelly, chairman of the Ohio chapter of the Mars Society, agrees.

Kelly, 61, is adamant that humanity's next step in space needs to be the settlement of Mars. He said the Mars Society, a national nonprofit organization founded in 1998, has been seeking funding and support to send humans to Mars within the next 10 years.

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