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Tonight, Mars puts on quite a show


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In a prologue to Halloween, the Red Planet - actually it looks more the color of a jack-o'-lantern - tonight will make its closest pass by Earth until 2018. And in a special telescope-viewing at Santa Fe Community College beginning at 8 p.m., the public will have a chance to see the best show on Mars in years.

Many normally obscure features of the Martian surface should be clearly visible through telescopes, said Sally Hoffman, the Santa Fe Community College astronomy professor who is hosting tonight's event. They include the Hellas Basin - a 4 billion-year-old impact crater - Mars' polar caps, the mysterious greenish-gray markings that led to the myth of "little green men" inhabiting the planet, and maybe even a Martian sandstorm.

"The view of Mars this year promises to be much clearer than in 2003, even though the approach in 2003 was the closest in 100,000 years," Hoffman said.

The phenomenon that's causing all the Martian fuss is called "opposition," which occurs when Mars in its orbit is exactly opposite the Earth from the sun. It occurs every two years, but some years the Red Planet is closer to Earth because of the vagaries of its oval-shaped orbit.

Hoffman said tonight at 11 Mars will be about 43 million miles from Earth. During the 2003 opposition, it was about 34 million miles away. By comparison, the moon is about 240,000 miles from Earth.

Mars will rise in the eastern sky, she said, and by about 7 p.m. should be visible even to people who have trees blocking their view of the horizon. It will be unmistakable in its distinctive orange color as it rises almost overhead.

With the naked eye, Hoffman said, Mars will be interesting in its brightness, but few features will be visible.


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