| An image of Mars taken by Nasa’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft. (AFP)
Washington, July 15 (AFP): Earth is speeding towards a rare astral rendezvous with Mars, placing the two as close to each other as possible and giving amateur astronomers an unparalleled view of the red planet.
The two planets are racing towards each other at a rate of about 30 km every five seconds, until they are as close as they ever can be on August 27.
The slightly elliptical curve of their orbits causes this rare meeting, which occurs only once every 60,000 years — meaning Neanderthals were the last people to have such an up-close look at Mars.
More distant, but still close encounters are slightly more common. The most recent of those were in the months of August in 1924, 1845 and 1766.
At their closest, earth is still 55.7 million km away from Mars. It’s a seemingly great distance, but is relatively small considering the vastness of the solar system.
Even now, the red planet appears around 11 pm as a bright point with a reddish-orange tint, inside the constellation of Aquarius.
Amateur telescopes can see Mars in unusual detail, notably the ice cap on its southern pole, which reflects the sun’s light and looks like an enormous white spot.
“I can see the polar ice vividly using my 20 cm telescope,” said Ron Wayman, an amateur astronomer in Tampa, Florida.
From now through August, Mars will continue to grow brighter. On August 27, only Venus will shine brighter in the night sky.
Exactly how good a view amateurs can get depends on where they’re standing, when they’re looking, and how powerful their telescope is.
Mars will reach its highest point in the sky around 3 am, making that the best time for viewing. Astronomers closer to the equator will get better views than their counterparts at more distant latitudes.
The daily newspaper, USA Today, joked that with Mars, the ancient Roman god of war, so close to Earth, it would be the perfect time for a Martian invasion.
Instead, Earthlings have already launched their invasion of Mars. Three probes — two from the US and one from Europe — are already headed toward Mars, where they are expected to land early next year.
Recently, Nasa scientists discovered that Mars has a molten core and far from being geologically dead, the planet may harbour volcanoes, liquid water and possibly life.
Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology reported the finding in the online edition of the journal, Science.
The work was based on readings from the Mars Global Surveyor, a Nasa satellite orbiting Mars.
Scientists unconnected with the research called it intriguing and potentially important. They cautioned that a hot, fluid core was insufficient in itself to prove that the surface of Mars was alive with geologic activity — often considered a prerequisite of life.
But they said it added weight to that view and buttressed recently discovered hints of running water and current volcanic activity.
“It makes Mars more alive than the dead body that many people thought it was a few years ago,” said Bruce H. Betts, director of projects at the Planetary Society, a group in Pasadena, Calif., that promotes space exploration.