The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mars, like a ruby in the eastern sky
- Eager stargazers await earth’s closest encounter with red planet in 73,000 years

With three days to go before the Earth has its closest encounter with Mars in 73,000 years, Calcuttans are hoping for a clear night sky to catch the red planet. But the weatherman’s forecast of “mainly overcast sky” threatens to be a real damper.

For those with an eye on the watch, Mars would be closest to Earth around 3.21 pm on Wednesday, when the distance between the two celestial bodies will be narrowed to 55.8 million km. Visibility will be impossible during daytime. But from 8.30 pm, until dawn, Mars will be a shining jewel in the eastern sky, with a yellowish-orange tinge. “The best time, according to our calculations, will be around 10 pm, when the planet will be weaving its magic for people to behold,” R. Subramanian, director of M.P. Birla Planetarium, said on Sunday.

The planetarium has started hosting special shows on the rare event. “We are all very excited and understand the people’s interest. These shows will also provide those interested in the phenomenon, as well as amateur astronomers, tips to pick out the Martian canals and the polar ice cap through the telescope,” said Subramanian. The special 40-minute programme, titled Closest Encounter with Mars, will be aired twice daily.

The planetarium has also made elaborate arrangements for Wednesday’s date with Mars. “We will have two telescopes and several big binoculars ready for anybody interested in watching the planet from close quarters,” said the director. The biggest is the celestron telescope, all of 14 inches in diameter. This will help a team of astronomers make out the terrain features of the planet more clearly. A few refractor telescopes will also be available for enthusiasts, “to get a bigger field”, from the planetarium.

With the next “close” sighting not scheduled till August 28, in the year 2287, amateur astronomers are gearing up for the grand Wednesday show. The Calcutta Astronomy Centre (CAC) is setting up telescopes at its centre in Kankurgachhi and even giving telescopes on loan to stargazers.

“One can get a fair idea about Mars even with small telescopes,” said Asish Mukherjee, of the centre. “We will set up a base camp on Wednesday evening atop the Corporation market in Kankurgachhi for a viewing of the red planet,” he added. The astronomy centre also organised a seminar on the Mars sighting at the Bangla Akademi on Sunday, which was well attended, despite the downpour.

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