They wont likely spot little green men, but stargazers peering through the telescope Wednesday night, Aug. 27, at West Virginia Universitys Tomchin Observatory will get their closest look ever of the reddish-orange disk we call Mars.
At 5:30 a.m. that day Mars will be 186 light-secondsor 34,646,418 milesfrom Earth, the closest the two planets have been to each other in 60,000 years. If the sky is clear, the observatory on the fourth-floor roof of Hodges Hall will be open 11 p.m.-midnight so the public can view the red planet. The viewing is free, and no reservations are necessary.
“This is significant because it makes studies of Mars from the Earth or satellites orbiting the Earth easier,”said John Littleton, a WVU physics professor who teaches astronomy courses and conducts research in astrophysics.
The close proximity between Earth and Mars is a result of the two planets and the sun being near alignment, a phenomenon scientists call opposition, Littleton explained.
“Mars circles the sun in a little less than two years, so it is moving around the sun more slowly than we are,”he said.”Every two years when we pass by it on our orbit, the separation of Earth and Mars is the least. This is the closest they have ever been.”
Named after the Roman god of war, Mars appears as a reddish-orange disk in the sky to the naked eye. The planet is extremely dry, despite polar caps where satellite photos uncovered the presence of water ice a few years ago.
This topography will be clearly defined during Wednesdays viewing if sky conditions are perfect, Littleton said.
“If the sky is clear, we will be able to see with the telescope something that looks like a reddish-orange blob,”he said.”If the air is steady, we might be able to see variations of light and dark reddish color and white glow from the polar caps.”
Mars is already visible to the naked eye if people cant wait until Wednesday or weather conditions prevent viewing it that night, Littleton said. The planet appears in the southeast sky between 10:30 and 11 each night, he added.
For more information about the Mars viewing at the observatory, call 304-293-3422 ext. 1443.