Earthlings to get intimate view of the Red Planet

Mars is the closest it’s been to Earth since ancient times.
Wednesday, August 27, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:48 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

People around the world await tonight’s party with Mars as its reaches its closest opposition to Earth in nearly 60,000 years. For more than a month, Doug Kniffen has been watching and photographing the Red Planet as it moves along its eccentric orbit.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve just felt a magnetic pull from the sky,” said Kniffen, an astronomy enthusiast with his own observatory near Warrenton.

That attraction has kept him at his Pickney Ridge Observatory until odd hours of the night as the close encounter with Mars draws nigh.

“It’s been getting bigger, brighter and better,” he said.

Kniffen commits a couple of hours each night to photographing Mars. He describes it as an art full of complexity and chance.

While taking photographs through a 16-inch telescope, Kniffen said he’s captured dust storms as well as variable markings on the planet such as the Syrtis Major, or Great Swamp, and Solis Lacus, known as the “eye of Mars.”

Mike Pepper of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association says Kniffen has some of the best images of Mars taken in this area.

“Any degree of success is largely dependent on putting in a lot of hours,” Kniffen said. “The fact is that I’ve taken thousands of really rotten ones for the few that I actually send out to people.”

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Kniffen said he enjoys the bigger picture of star gazing: “It’s a fascinating thing to see what’s going on in other worlds.”

there will be ample opportunity for people to see what’s happening on Mars starting around 9:15 p.m.

With clear skies and a decent telescope, viewers could glimpse the 4,200-mile-wide planet that’s 34.6 million miles away. Mars’ noticeable features include the white South Polar Cap and various dark markings.

Randy Durk of the CMAA said the 1875 telescope at the Morrison Observatory in Fayette is especially good , but that Laws Observatory on the MU campus has a good telescope, too.

“And with planets, you don’t have to worry about light pollution affecting viewing,” he said.

For the past couple of weeks, Durk said he’s received a flood of inquiries about the planetary event, and expects a good turnout at the observatories.

Folks can even pull out lawn chairs and spy Mars from their yards, Durk said.

“It’s a conversation piece, something you can say you saw,” he said. “This is the brightest it’s been since even before Biblical times.”

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