Comments from Dr. Rick Williamon, Planetarium Director



Have you noticed a very bright reddish object in the pre-dawn southern sky during the past several weeks? If so, you have already seen Mars. If not, you certainly should plan to get up early, dodge a few raindrops, and check out our brilliant neighbor. Mars is already stunning, and it will become even better and brighter. On the evening of Tuesday, August 26 and into the early morning of Wednesday, August 27, the Earth and Mars will be at their closest distance—if only by a little—in over 59,000 years.

Earth and Mars both travel around the sun in slightly elliptical orbits, and the faster moving earth passes Mars about every 2 years and 2 months. This year, however, Mars is located near the inner part of its ellipse (perihelion) and the earth is near the farthest part of its ellipse (aphelion). Therefore, the viewing circumstances this August are as ideal as any astronomer could hope for.

Although Mars and Earth are at their closest distance in human history, they have been closer in the past and will be closer in the future. Just hang in there for an even closer look in August 2287. This year’s upcoming close passage will be only slightly closer than the one in 1988, and there will be several (perhaps 5) such very favorable close passages during an average human lifetime.

How close will Mars actually be in 2003?

On August 27, 2003, at 9:51 Universal Time (5:51 AM Eastern Daylight Time) the centers of Earth and Mars will be only 55,758,006 kilometers (34,646,418 miles) apart.

We have been and will continue to image Mars with our 24-inch Cassegrain telescope and digital camera equipment. In fact, we are putting together video sequences that we will be showing on the evening of Tuesday, August 26th. Students are invited to drop into the planetarium between 10 PM and 1 AM to see a live video feed (weather permitting) direct from the telescope in the observatory. Indeed, even though we will not be able to show Mars through an eyepiece at the telescope, we cordially invite you to view the live, closed circuit images from the telescope which will be projected into the planetarium. (Weather permitting, of course; otherwise you will get to enjoy some of the previously recorded video from the observatory). This is not a planetarium show and no RSVP is needed; just drop in to see the live Mars image and watch it as long as you want.

Gotta have a view through the eyepiece?

For some, the event isn’t real until it’s viewed through an eyepiece. For those folks, we would like to recommend nearby Fernbank Observatory. Fernbank has an oversized dome and was built to accommodate large crowds; for large events, our dome is better suited to share an image, such as Mars, electronically on a screen.

Please remember that the viewing is weather dependent. We’ll try our best to schedule a clear evening, but not even the best telescope can see through clouds!