Late summer light impediment to Mars view

Posted: Monday, August 18, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Late summer light is limiting the Alaska view of Mars, which is the closest to Earth it has been in 60,000 years.

On Aug. 27, the red planet will be as near to Earth as it will get until 2287.

''Certainly it's exciting for people,'' said local astronomy enthusiast Martin Gutowski. ''Now we just need to get beyond (autumn) equinox to really get a good look at it.''

The rare planet-gazing has prompted observation parties across the nation, where even amateurs can see Mars looking bigger and brighter than usual in the southern sky. With a telescope, it's possible to see dust clouds, volcanic terrain and basins and even a polar ice cap, which is melting because the sun is shining on it, according the NASA Web site.

It's currently late spring on the south pole of Mars, and the ice cap is expected to be completely melted by the end of September.

If dust storms on Mars don't pose an obstruction, the best views of the planet should be on Aug. 27, when, in the early morning, it will come within 34.65 million miles of Earth, the closest the planets have been in 60,000 years.

Mars and Earth were more than five times that distance from each other only six months ago, according to NASA.

The close encounter is the result of several factors including ''perihelic opposition,'' which means Mars has reached its closest point to the sun at the same time that the planet is in perfect alignment with the sun and Earth.

In Fairbanks, people interested in seeing Mars will have to wait until after 2 a.m. for the sky to be dark enough to spot the planet.

''If you get up somewhere between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m. and look due south, it will be the brightest thing in the sky besides the moon,'' Gutowski said.

From Fairbanks, Mars can be seen at about 10 degrees above the horizon, much lower in the sky than many other locations.

''Certainly just with the naked eye, it's brighter than it has been and you can see a little orange tint to it,'' he said.

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