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Yahoo! News   Thu, Nov 14, 2002
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Mars to Get Closer than Ever in Recorded History in 2003
Fri Nov 8, 8:50 AM ET

By Joe Rao,

Mars recently emerged into the morning sky and has begun an orbital dance with Earth that will, over the next several months, lead to the best viewing opportunity since Neanderthals looked skyward.

AP Photo

We’re not kidding.

To get ready for this momentous skywatching event, now would be a fine time to reacquaint yourself with the Red Planet [maps/charts]. All during the summer of 2002 Mars was pretty much out of view because of its close proximity to the Sun. But during the latter part of September it began to emerge back into view in the morning sky and is in full view, though for now it appears rather small in the sky and low on the horizon.

However, this is only the beginning of what will turn out to be the most dramatic and spectacular Mars apparition you or any of your ancestors has ever had a chance to see.

The Red Planet is getting progressively closer to Earth with each passing night, and consequently it will slowly appear to grow larger and brighter. By late August 2003, when it will be about 191 million miles closer, the reddish point of light in our night sky will appear more than six times larger and shine some 85 times brighter than it appears now.

At 5:51 a.m. EDT on Aug. 27, 2003, Mars will be within 34,646,488 miles (55,746,199 kilometers) of Earth. This will be the closest that Mars has come to our planet in about 73,000 years, based on detailed computations by Jean Meeus of Belgium.

Meeus is a world-renowned expert in the field of spherical and mathematical astronomy. He has written many highly acclaimed books dealing with a variety of astronomical calculations. His most recent book, "More Mathematical Astronomy Morsels" (Willmann-Bell, Inc., 2002) contains a chapter on Mars' Closest Approaches to Earth.

Here's what happens:

On Aug. 28, 2003, Mars will be at "opposition," the moment when the Sun, Earth and Mars will form a straight line; since we are closer to the Sun than Mars, this is also when we are overtaking Mars in our respective orbits [graphic].

Mars comes to opposition about every 26 months. But because of the elliptical orbits of Earth and Mars, not all oppositions are created equal. The 2003 opposition will be superior to all the others because Mars will be very near to its closest point to the Sun, called perihelion, when it arrives at opposition.

Such "perihelic oppositions" of Mars are in themselves, rather infrequent, occurring about every 15 to 17 years. The most recent one took place in September 1988, when Mars passed to within 36.5 million miles (58.7 million kilometers) of Earth.

Though Mars' opposition comes comes on Aug. 28, it will be closest to Earth on Aug. 27.

At the close approach, the Red Planet will be brighter than Jupiter and all the stars in the night sky, outshone only by Venus and the Moon.

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