Friday, October 28, 2005

Mars to Swing Close to Earth This Weekend

LOS ANGELES - Mars is ready for another close-up. For the second time in nearly 60,000 years, the Red Planet will swing unusually close to Earth this weekend, appearing as a yellow twinkle in the night sky.

Mars' latest rendezvous will not match its record-breaking approach to Earth in 2003, when it hovered from 35 million miles away. But more skygazers this time around can glimpse the fourth rock from the sun because it will glow above the horizon.

"This is the best we're going to see Mars, so we should strike the iron while it is hot," said Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.

On Saturday, Mars' orbit will bring it 43.1 million miles away from Earth, with its closest pass scheduled for 11:25 p.m. EDT. The two planets — normally separated by about 140 million miles — will not be this close again until 2018.

Mars will still seem small to the naked eye, appearing about the size of a penny seen from 620 feet away. The rust-colored planet will be at its brightest this weekend, and no celestial body in that part of the sky will be as luminous, Beatty said.

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Most backyard telescopes will see Mars as a small, brilliant ball. Observers with more powerful instruments might be able to discern details on the planet's surface, including its southern ice cap and white clouds.

The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope will train its eyes on Mars during the passing, snapping close-ups as it did in 2003.

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