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Area stargazers get closest look at Mars Ken Hawkins/Gazette
Mars factoids Day length: 24 hours, 37 minutes Year length: 687 earth days Moons: 2 Age: 4.5 billion years Earth age: 4.5 billion years Size: 4,217 mile diameter Earth size: 7,926 mile diameter Weight: about 11 percent of Earth's Volume: about 15 percent of Earth's Deepest canyon: 4 miles Earth deepest canyon: 2 miles Tallest mountain: 78,760 feet Earth tallest mountain: 29,028 feet Temperature: -81 F Earth temperature: 57 F Gravity: about a third of Earth's, twice the gravity of the moon Atmosphere: mostly nitrogen Source: NASA
Published Tue, Aug 26, 2003 By MICHAEL KERR Gazette staff writer More by Michael Kerr In 1938 Orson Welles' radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" caused a national panic that Mars had launched an assault in New Jersey. This week, almost 65 years later, Earthlings have turned their gaze once again to the tiny red planet.
Today and Wednesday, Mars will pass closer to Earth than it has in nearly 60,000 years, giving both professional astronomers and amateur stargazers alike a reason to look toward the skies and pray for cloudless nights.
At 5:51 a.m. Wednesday, Mars will be 34,646,418 miles from Earth, closer than it has been since 57617 B.C., according to SkyandTelescope.com, and Jeanne Audet, the president of the Hilton Head Astronomy Club, plans to take advantage.
"The best way to do it is after 10 or 11 o'clock at night," Audet said. "It's spectacular."
It's best to wait until after 10 p.m. so Mars is far enough above the horizon and the haze won't obscure the view, as the planet rises in the East and makes its path high in the South, she said.
With a good telescope, planet watchers should be able to make out Mars' features and binoculars should be enough to give a distinct view of the planet, Audet said.
But a lack of astronomy equipment won't eliminate the opportunity to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, because Mars will be noticeable to the naked eye.
"You're going to see a pretty bright orange-red disc in the Southeast," Audet said. "It's a beautiful color. You can't miss it."
The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies through Wednesday.
Earlier this summer, NASA launched the Mars Rover Opportunity and Mars Rover Spirit to study Mars, which has a diameter of 4,222 miles, a little more than half that of Earth, according to Space.com. The rovers were launched then to take advantage of Mars' proximity to the Earth and save on fuel costs as they make their way to the red planet.
Gordon Sproul, a professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort who has taught astronomy classes, already has taken a look at Mars through his eight-inch telescope, viewing the white snow field of the planet's south pole.
"Right now is a very good time to see it, because the moon is not in competition with it. There's no moon up right now," Sproul said.
Sproul, who prefers to watch Mars at midnight when it's almost directly overhead, said he has never seen Mars look so big.
"It's huge in the sky," he said.
Students at Port Royal Elementary School are excited about it and struggling to stay up late enough for a chance to see Mars, said Principal Kay Keeler.
"We're very excited and we're running it in the weekly letters we send home to parents," Keeler said. "You hate to wake the children up at midnight, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime event."
Okatie Elementary School will be starting an astronomy club in October. The school, which opened earlier this month, also has a "super-duper telescope," Principal Jaimie Pinckney said, but the moving process has prevented teachers from taking advantage of the instrument while Mars is close by.
"Some of my teachers have been discussing it in class," Pinckney said.
Usually, Venus and Jupiter are the brightest planets in the sky, but right now Mars is far brighter, Sproul said.
Although Mars will be at its closest point early Wednesday morning, it will be visible for the rest of August and into September, so people shouldn't get discouraged if they miss it this week, Audet said.
"One of these nights the sky is going to be clear," she said.
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