More than a hundred years ago, Percival Lowell tipped his telescope toward Mars, imagined a Venetian-style civilization, and initiated the public's love affair with the Red Planet. Since then countless science fiction writers have painted a Mars awash with canal-loving beings intent on colonizing our watery globe. Were Lowell alive today, no doubt he'd be extremely excited to learn that on Wednesday Mars will make its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years.
Mars and Earth perform a celestial horse race on an endless track. (Place your money on the Earth, which gallops much faster on the inside.) Every 26 months the Earth catches up to and passes Mars. Each pass allows features on the Red Planet such as ice caps to become visible to back yard telescopes. The irregular orbits also result in a Spirograph-like game where especially close flybys average every sixteen years. This time Mars is even closer.
While this is interesting, the media attention directed at our rusty neighbor has magnified the event beyond its appropriate scope. The actual distance between the two bodies will still be a whopping 34,646,418 miles and details will remain invisible to the unaided eye. Telescopic observations are also dependent on the vagaries of Earthly and Martian atmospheres, especially with the dust storms of Martian spring always threatening a major letdown. On the other hand, these close approaches are rare, occurring about once a generation, and of value to observers. The distance on this one won't be matched until 2287. Indeed the usually unnoticeable Mars has been brilliant to the naked eye for weeks.
The obvious question: Is a run on survival supplies and ammo called for? Spacecraft so far have been unable to spot the tiniest of Martians, let alone rampaging interplanetary gondoliers. A savings of a few million miles is rather meaningless, considering that it will take the now-en route NASA Mars Rover spacecraft until January to get there, but it sure makes for fun campfire stories. Besides, it's the Earthly spaceships invading Mars, not the other way around. Though some of them have mysteriously disappeared when approaching Mars these last few decades. Hmm ...
With the moon graciously bowing out of the Martian show, the Red Planet will be especially bright. Mars rises in the Southeast shortly after sunset. It's the obvious bright orangey "star." But if you want to learn some impressive facts to pass on to your friends and take a peek through a larger telescope, venture to Mars Over Miami at the Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium (3280 S. Miami Ave.). There Star Gazer (née Hustler) Jack Horkheimer will deliver a live star show and astro-photographer Dr. Donald Parker will offer a Mars lecture. Telescopes will be raffled and a "best-dressed Martian" contest will take place. Galoshes are suggested.