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Residents may get a close look at Mars

August 25, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

It's literally out of this world, but it's also the closest it gets.

"This year, Mars and Earth happen to be in the part of their orbits where they are very, very close to the absolute closest they can ever be to each other," said Helen M. Hart, operations astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

On Tuesday, when Earth, which takes a year to orbit the sun, passes Mars, which takes nearly two years to run a similar course, the two planets will be about 35 million miles apart. That is the closest they've been to each other in 60,000 years and the closest they'll be until the year 2287, she said.

Hart, who runs an astronomical spacecraft that orbits Earth, said the Red Planet will appear to the naked eye to be the size of a star, one with red and orange tinges.

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She said if a person faces the southeastern horizon at 10 p.m. Tuesday, they could see the planet, which may be found by placing one's hands thumb to thumb spanned above the horizon.

"From Hubble (space telescope) to me with my binoculars it will be easier to see the details of (Mars) and to study it well," she said.

"It's 5 percent closer than it ever gets, but it's enough to matter," Hart said.

Hart, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the planet, said when Mars passed Earth in May 1999, it appeared as large as it appeared in July of this year.

She said Mars will appear larger for the next two months and has been a glowing presence for the past month.

Observers with a small or medium telescope might be able to distinguish the southern polar cap, which is a bright spot on the edge of the planet, Hart said. She said Mars often is shaded by its dust clouds, which kick up a bright red color, and sometimes is covered in dust-free areas, which give off a darker red hue.

She said the latest Hubble pictures do not show global dust storms, but this time of year usually is notorious for storms that shroud the entire planet in a bright red.

Mars' presence on the astrological charts will kick up more than a few dust clouds in people's lives, said astrologer Jeanne Mozier of Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

"Mars is doing weird things, unusual things. It will have a greater impact on Earth than it usually does," she said.

Mars, named after the Roman god of war, is known astrologically for stirring up conflict and war, she said, and its combative nature will peak this week.

"This week, the relationships that have been tolerated and repressed, the stress will just blow up," she said.

But Mars is not alone in its planetary significance this week. Pluto and Mars appear to be moving backward, or are retrograding, and Jupiter is moving into the sign of Virgo for a year, all of which, Mozier said, will factor in to a week of tension, conflict and wacky behavior.

"Personally, I would stay home," Mozier said.

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