Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Close Encounter of the Mars Kind

They used to call it the angry red planet. Because of its proximity, fourth planet from the sun and first beyond our own, astronomers have given it a lot of attention over the years. Named after the Roman god of war, its ruddy color is due to the iron oxide content of its surface, much like Sedona in the Southwest, or portions of the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota.

Tonight, and for the next few nights, Mars will be very near to the earth, relatively speaking... a mere 60 million miles away. For amateur astronomers, it won't get any better than this for more than five years. Unfortunately, the forecast tonight in my neck of the woods is below zero, not the most thrilling for setting up a telescope and standing outside. (Six below right this sec and feels like -22.) But the sky is clear and Mars will be on display at its brilliant best if you know where to look. The only things brighter from our vantage point are Venus, the Moon and the Sun... and Jupiter most of the time.

Did you know that there are currently three spacecraft from earth orbiting Mars? And on the surface of Mars are two active mechanical rovers, along with the litter of other failed landing craft.

Many websites have info on this week's event. Wired.com has a good collection of links, too, not only to Mars photos, but to other collections of images by astrophotographers. And for rank beginners this site will help you locate our red buddy with it polar ice caps, craters, valleys and deserts.

For more info on our near-Mars experience, start here.

For something a little different, a lesson for Earthlings, read Peter Opack's lament, The Empty Skies of Mars.

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