Realistic expectations for Mars historic visit

Perhaps you’ve heard’late this summer Mars will come closer to Earth than its been in 60 millennia. The red planet will appear larger and brighter than at any time in recorded history. It’ll be an astronomical show you won’t want to miss. Now with that being said, let’s put this in proper perspective. Between now and the end of August, the hype will intensify, leading to great, and maybe unrealistic, expectations. Do you recall the 1986 visit of Halley’s Comet, the famous comet that comes around every 76 years’ It generated great interest and anticipation, but also considerable disappointment. Its 1910 pass was reportedly spectacular, so expectations ran high for 1986–folks anticipated an equally awesome display. But when Halley put on only a good, but not spectacular, show, many were disappointed. So that Mars in 2003 doesn’t repeat the 1986 Halley experience, let’s look at what we can realistically expect this summer. At 4:51 a.m., August 27, 2003, Mars and Earth will be separated by 34,646,418 miles. According to Italian astronomer Aldo Vitagliano, an expert in orbital mechanics, the last time Mars was this close to Earth was in 57,617 BCE, back when our ancestors presumably were proverbial “cave men.” When seen in telescopes, Mars will appear about half the diameter of Jupiter.. For a few weeks it will be brighter than Jupiter ever gets, and second only to Venus and the Moon. So what can we expect to see’ Since neither Jupiter nor Venus will be prominent this summer, the fiery red planet will dominate the naked-eye night sky on moonless nights throughout August and September, blazing brighter than any star. While binoculars won’t add much, telescopes will reveal Mars as a small reddish ball. Any visible surface features will be faint and subtle. Mars’ southern hemisphere is now tilted toward us, exposing its southern polar cap which will be prominent through June. But as it’s now spring in Mars’ southern hemisphere, the white-colored polar cap will partially thaw and grow smaller in July and August. It should still be visible, just smaller. There are sure to be public Mars-viewing star parties hosted by local astronomy societies, so watch for announcements. And we’ll be talking more about Mars, so stay tuned to this column. SKY CALENDAR. * 12 Thu. evening: A large gibbous Moon is above Scorpius’ brightest star, Antares, in the southeast, then to the right of the star in the southwest Friday morning, and then to the star’s lower left Friday evening. * 13 Fri.: Today is the year’s only Friday the 13th, a bad-luck day but only for the superstitious. * 14 Sat.: Tonight’s full Moon of June is called Rose Moon, Flower Moon and Strawberry Moon. * 19 Thu. morning: A gibbous Moon is below Mars in the southwest. * 21 Sat. morning: Mercury is less than a moonwidth to the lower right of Venus in the east northeast, but unfortunately they don’t rise above the horizon until an hour before sunrise; binoculars will be needed. * 21 Sat.: The Moon is at 3rd quarter, good for evening stargazing but not morning. * 21 Sat.: Summer solstice–first day of summer and the year’s longest day. * 22 Sun. morning: Mars is 3 degrees (the width of 3 fingers held at arm’s length) below Uranus in the south southeast, but seeing distant Uranus will require binoculars or a telescope. PLANETS. MERCURY is to the upper right of VENUS in the morning sky near the east northeastern horizon shortly before sunrise. MARS, which dominates the morning sky, rises just before 1 a.m., while JUPITER, which dominates the evening sky, sets at midnight. SATURN is now too near the setting Sun for good viewing. NEPTUNE rises at midnight with URANUS coming up an hour later, but neither can be seen without optical aids. Stargazer appears every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or See the Stargazer Web site at

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