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Mars attracts!

Next month, Earth and Mars will rub shoulders - cosmically speaking - as the Red Planet drifts closer than it has in 60,000 years.

Published July 30, 2003

The planet Mars has captured the human imagination like no other, inspiring terror in the radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and spawning countless tabloid headlines.

Next month, the Red Planet will come closer to Earth than it has in about 60,000 years.

"This isn't even once in a lifetime," said Daniel Bricker, 56, a longtime member of the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club. "This is an event for all history of mankind. The Neanderthals were walking around the last time Mars got this close to Earth."

Already casual sky watchers and professional astronomers are gearing up for the event, in which Mars will appear larger and brighter than normal.

On Aug. 27, the two planets will be closer together than in hundreds of generations: less than 35-million miles. In 1988, the last time people had a good chance to observe Mars up close, it was about 2-million miles farther away, according to the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa.

The St. Petersburg Astronomy Club will host a series of free observations so the public can look at the planet through telescopes. MOSI also has special events planned, including free telescope viewings after dark at Saunders Planetarium.

Gregory Shanos, 43, a pharmacist and avid amateur astronomer who lives in Longboat Key near Sarasota, said Mars already looks bigger than usual.

"I checked out Mars this morning, and it was beautiful," said Shanos, who hauled his telescope out into his front yard at 5:30 Thursday morning. "It's definitely a lot bigger. I've seen it in past years when it wasn't so big, and it just looks very, very tiny. Now it's like several times the diameter, and you can see surface features, too."

Shanos plans to observe the planet every clear day for the next several weeks, as the big day approaches.

In truth, Mars typically doesn't attract a lot of attention from astronomers.

Though its reddish-orange hue distinguishes it, Mars usually is too far away to be very interesting to most amateurs, whose telescopes don't have enough power to show details.

Over the next month, though, we will get as good a glimpse as we're likely to have.

Daryl Schrader, an astronomy and mathematics professor at St. Petersburg College who also teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida, explained the science behind the Mars closeup, which he compared to an event like Halley's Comet.

About every 780 days, Mars comes relatively close to the Earth in its orbit around the sun, an event known as an opposition.

During an opposition, Mars, Earth and the sun are aligned. Because of the shapes and speeds of the planets' orbits, some oppositions bring Mars closer to Earth than others.

"With it this close, you'll see a larger disc more like the size of Jupiter," Schrader said. "You'll be able to see the polar caps, some of the surface details. But you're not going to be able to catch the craters or the giant canyons or the volcanoes."

From the beginning of August to the end of the month, Schrader said, Mars' brightness will double. Even those looking without the help of a telescope should be able to notice a difference, Schrader said.

Matt Terry, 42, a classical guitarist and homemaker in Tampa, has been observing Mars during the past three months. Typically, the planet is "very small and featureless," he said.

But recently, the planet has moved so close that you can see the southern polar cap and many surface features, Terry said. "It's an obvious planet. It looks a lot like Earth."

As with other astronomical events, some find special meaning in the alignment of the planets, especially one named for the Roman god of war.

Pat Hardy, a Clearwater astrologer for 28 years, said that because her field relies in part on history to interpret meaning, it's impossible to say exactly what Mars' proximity to Earth will mean.

She interprets the close alignment of Uranus and Mars in Pisces to mean "there is a lot of aggression. The energy of war is in the air," she said, referring to the war in Iraq.

"On a personal level," she added, "We're feeling like the volume is being turned up," Hardy said. "There's an intensity to being more aggressive."

- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 30, 2003, 01:33:02]

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