Seeing red? Mars is getting closer

The best observation will be Wednesday late night, and will last for a few weeks.
Sunday, August 24, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:01 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Halley’s comet, which passes the Earth about every 76 years, was a celebrated astronomical event in 1986. But this month, the people of Earth have the opportunity to view an event that hasn’t happened for the past 60,000 years and won’t happen again for another 284 years.

On Wednesday, Mars will be at its closest opposition, when Mars, the Earth and the sun form a straight line.

“This is probably the most dramatic thing that astronomy provides besides a comet,” said Val Germann, chairman of the board for the Central Missouri Amateur Astronomers.

During the opposition, Mars will be the third-brightest celestial body in the sky, appearing 85 times brighter than usual. Only the moon and Venus will outshine the reddish-orange planet.

“It’s striking how bright it is,” Germann said.

Mars will be 34,646,418 miles away, and it will appear six times closer to Earth than usual.

On Wednesday, the Earth will be at its aphelion, the farthest point in its orbit from the sun, while Mars will be at its perihelion, the closest point to the sun. This positioning is what puts the two planets at their closest points in 60,000 years and makes the 2003 opposition so rare.

Laws Observatory at MU and Morrison Observatory in Fayette will be open to the public at various times before and after the day of the opposition to allow viewings through high powered telescopes.

At Laws Observatory on Wednesday, the astronomers’ group is sponsoring an event in which viewers can see Mars through a 16-inch, high-powered telescope. Organizers suggest visitors come late as opposed to early and park in the Brady Commons visitor lot, near Hitt Street and Rollins Street, and walk to the Physics Building at College Avenue and Rollins.

The planet will become visible about 9:15 p.m., and will be in its prime viewing position about 10:30 p.m.

“If you can stay up, the viewing gets better as it gets later because Mars gets higher in the sky,” Germann said.

Looking at Mars through a high-powered telescope, viewers should be able to see many distinct features, including the polar ice cap and Syrtis Major, “the great swamp.” If dust storms don’t cover the planet, viewers might also be able to see the planet’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons, which is three times higher than Mount Everest.

“I would encourage as many people as possible to come out to the observatories to see it for themselves,” said Ralph Dumas, president of the astronomers’ group. “Hopefully, we will inspire some young people, because it will be their generation that will go there.”

Columbia Public Library will hold a “Party with the Stars” on Friday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the Gene Martin Secret Garden. Outside viewing will begin around 8:15 p.m. in the parking lot.


Before you head out to look at Mars, be sure to check the Columbia Clear Sky Clock on the Central Missouri Amateur Astronomers Web site to determine whether the sky will be clear enough to see the planet.

For four weeks from mid-August to early September, Mars will be nearer to Earth. To catch a glance of this astronomical event, take a telescope outside sometime after 9:15 p.m. on a clear night or join the CMAA for a star party. By 10:15 p.m., the planet will be high in the southeast sky and best-suited for viewing.

Wednesday: CMAA will be sponsoring gazing at Laws Observatory in the Physics Building at MU.

Friday: “Party with the Stars” at Columbia Public Library from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. A slide show will be given at 7:30 p.m. in the Gene Martin Secret Garden. Viewing of Mars will begin in the parking lot at 8:15 p.m.

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