Fourth rock from the sun

By Ed Brock

It will be a celestial encounter of a close kind and Clayton College and State University astronomy professor Hal Banke wants to watch.

This week Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been in almost 60,000 years.

"The fact that we're moving at different speeds, that's the key," Banke said.

Being closer to the sun, Earth moves faster in its orbit than Mars, so periodically the third rock catches up with the fourth. The difference this time is that

they are coming together at the point where their respective elliptical orbits are closest, Banke said.

Bill Warren, co-founder of the Flint River Astronomy Club, is watching the approach of the Red Planet as well.

"Since the beginning of June it's been getting brighter and brighter," Warren said. "It can be seen very easily in the evening once it's cleared the horizon."

People have been too "hypnotized" by the date Aug. 27 when the two planets are supposed to be closest at 36.6 million miles, Warren said. In fact, Mars will be exceptionally bright through September.

"The only thing brighter than Mars up there is the moon," he said.


While the spectacle can be enjoyed with the naked eye or a pair of good binoculars, a telescope will offer the best perspective.

"This is one of the few times when a person with a back yard telescope will have a chance to see the polar ice caps," Banke said.

"I turned my telescope on it in early August and boom, there it was," said Warren who, until recently, had never seen the planet's ice cap.

But September will be even better for watching with a telescope, Warren said, since the planet will be almost as bright but higher in the sky.

At Henry County High School, physical science teacher George Fuentes is trying to spread his enthusiasm for the celestial close encounter.

"Some show interest – some more than others," he said of his students. "I don't think they'll be tremendously excited unless they see Mars go by like a giant ball. Think of all the graphics we've got to compete with – in movies – they can make anything happen."

Nevertheless, Fuentes said he's encouraging his students to pay attention to the event.

" – None of us is going to be alive to see this again – I keep telling the students, go out and get something – get your dad's old telescope; go to Wal-Mart and get a cheap scope. I think they'll be impressed by what they see."

David Spohn, a sales associate at Wolf Camera at Southlake Mall, said the celestial phenomenon has prompted interest in people who have never owned a telescope and has renewed the interest of amateur astrologists.

"We've had kids who want a telescope bring in their parents," Spohn said. "I had a lady come in last week looking at telescopes. She said her birthday was coming up and she wanted a telescope."

Spohn said some telescope owners have come in seeking adapters that will allow them to attach their cameras and take celestial photographs.

And he, too, is among the ranks of sky watchers.

"We've been dragging the grandkids outside to a big field," Spohn said. "This is a very, very interesting phenomenon."

The best time to take a look will be Tuesday night, some time after 10 or 11 p.m. Mars will be in the east southeast sky at 25 degrees above the horizon by 11 p.m., and it will continue to move across the sky until just after 7 a.m.

A simple way to judge the degrees is to hold a fist against the sky. Banke said a fist equals about eight degrees. Mars should be yellow orange or red. The brightest regular star near it will be Fomalhaut, but Mars will still be about 10 times brighter.

But clouds, that are expected to roll in Monday evening, can obscure even the brightest items in the sky.

"We are forecasting a 20 percent change of showers and thunderstorms Monday evening," said Mike Leary, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City. "It is expected to be partly cloudy through Thursday."

Little green men

Named after the Roman god of war, Mars has always held a special place in human mythology. Its near approach used to coincide with an increase in UFO sightings, Banke said.

In 1938 Orson Welles produced the now famous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" that had many people thinking the Earth was really being invaded by Martians because the broadcast was in the form of several supposed news alerts.

Mars' orbit is not stable, Banke said, since the large outer planets like Jupiter are constantly pulling at it. Thus, its orbit is growing flatter, so to speak, meaning people living in the year 2287, when the planets will again be close, will have a better show.

"We'll be slightly closer then than we will be next week," said Banke.

Staff writer Clay Wilson contributed to this story.