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Earthlings Have A Date With Mars

The wandering of the planets brings Mars closer to Earth this month than at any time in nearly 60,000 years. It will be a last-chance proposition for all alive today: Mars won't be as close again until Aug. 28, 2287.

Just 34.6 million miles of space will separate the two planets on Aug. 27. If that doesn't sound close, Mars was five times as distant just six months ago.

Already, Mars has begun to loom large in the late evening sky, its rusty twinkle apparent in the southeast. For the next several weeks the fourth rock from the sun should shine brighter than any other celestial body - save the moon and Venus.

"Mars you can't miss, it's bright and red," said Myles Standish, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Aldo Vitagliano, of the University of Naples in Italy, calculated that Mars hasn't had as close a brush with Earth since Sept. 12, 57617 B.C., when Neanderthals ruled but modern man had begun to make inroads.

J. Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope, said he plans to be gazing skyward to bathe in the "Marslight" during the closest approach - 5:51 a.m. EDT on Aug. 27.

The Red Planet still will seem small: To the naked eye, Mars will have the apparent diameter of a penny seen from 500 feet away. Even though Mars is twice the size of the moon, it will be 145 times as distant.

With binoculars, or better yet a telescope, observers can start to pick out details on the planet's surface. The view from even a modest telescope should reveal the planet's southern ice cap, Beatty said.

Next week, astronomers will send radio waves from antennas on Earth that will bounce off Mars to study the terrain where one of the two NASA rovers is targeted to land in January. The close proximity will improve the resolution of the radar images, said Albert Haldemann, deputy project scientist for the rover mission.

Planetariums around the world plan Mars-gazing parties beginning the evening of Aug. 26, and the Hubble Space Telescope is expected to take a close-approach portrait of Mars.

By Andrew Bridges

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