LOS ANGELES — The Red Planet is ready for its close-up.
The orbits of Earth and Mars is bringing the two planets the closest they have been in 13 years. That has left Mars to shine brightly in the night sky, its tawny red color obvious to even naked-eye astronomers.
“Mars is the brightest thing in the evening sky, unless the moon is out,” said John Mosley, an astronomer at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
Stargazers in the southern hemisphere have the better view of the planet, which appears high in the sky. But anyone in the northern hemisphere can still see Mars as it lurks low in the south, near the constellation Scorpius.
Earthlings get a particularly good view of Mars once about every 26 months. During what is called planetary opposition, Earth aligns itself roughly between Mars and the sun.
The opposition began on Monday, but on Thursday, Mars will be the closest it has been since 1988: about 42 million miles.
The two planets will be even closer – just 35 million miles apart – in August 2003.
“It will be the closest approach of Mars to Earth in at least 5,000 years; probably more like 100,000 years,” said Myles Standish, an astronomer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The Earth’s sweep near Mars comes a few months before NASA’s latest Mars mission enters orbit around the Red Planet in October.
The Mars Odyssey spacecraft, launched in April, is expected to arrive in Mars orbit on Oct. 23 and begin taking measurements to determine the composition of the planet’s surface and search for water or shallow ice beneath the planet’s surface.
Many scientists speculate that the planet could have once harbored life, or may still, and NASA’s missions to the planet have sought evidence of water.
Recent tests of the spacecraft’s instruments and systems by JPL engineers showed everything was working fine. NASA came under increased criticism in 1999 after both its Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander missions failed.
The closeness of the two planets is significant for the launch dates of such missions. Standish compared the launching of spacecraft between the planets to tossing a ball between two moving vehicles.
“Earth and Mars are like a couple of race cars going around a race track. If you’re going to throw a ball from Earth to Mars, you have to throw before you catch up and you have to aim at a spot ahead of Mars,” Standish said.
“The timing is much more crucial than the closeness,” he added.
A missed launch opportunity would mean having to wait more than two years for the next approach.
For the Earth-bound, Mars should remain bright through October.
Mosley said while a telescope is needed to see any of the planet’s surface features, including its brilliant polar caps, anyone can see Mars with just their eyes.
“It’s easy to see, no trouble at all to see in your backyard. Everyone should go out and see it,” he said. “Mars rules.”
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