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The BBC's Andrew Craig
"In June Mars will pass by the Earth closer than at any time since 1988"
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Sir Patrick Moore
"It normally sparks a new crop of flying saucers reports"
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Dr Jacqueline Mitton of the Royal Astronomical Soc.
"People may think they're seeing something artificial"
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Tuesday, 29 May, 2001, 09:16 GMT 10:16 UK
Red Planet 'to spark UFO sightings'
Mars will appear "like a bright red star"
Reports of UFO sightings are expected to rise over the next few weeks as the planet Mars passes close to the Earth.

Astronomers expect many skywatchers to mistake the planet for some other unearthly body, as it will appear as a bright red light hovering over the tops of houses and trees.

On 13 June, Mars will be closer to the Earth than it has been for two years - close enough for the planet's polar ice caps to be seen through a small telescope.

You don't need a big telescope... to see one of the polar ice caps and dark patches on the planet

Society for Popular Astronomy
But leading astronomer Sir Patrick Moore says that although more visible, Mars will still be about 42 million miles away.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It will be nice and bright, low down in the sky after dark and it can look like a bright red star - and it normally sparks a new crop of flying saucers reports."

Michael Soper of Contact International, which researches and monitors UFO sightings, agreed there was a correlation between planet activity and unusual sightings, but he disputed that people could not tell the difference between the two.

He told BBC News Online: "The two do go together.

"But we do not expect there to be a boost in UFO sightings for another six months, which is linked to a rapid decline in the number of sun spots.

"The closeness of Mars used to produce more UFO sightings in the 1950s and 60s, but less so nowadays."

Mars lowdown

For astronomy buffs, the approaching Mars will appear quite low on the horizon in the southern sky, between the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius.

But a crystal clear night does not offer the best conditions for observing the planet, say experts.

Robin Scagell, vice president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, says slightly misty weather is better because it cancels out the shimmering effect caused by temperature differences.
Sir Patrick Moore
Sir Patrick Moore: "UFO sightings expected"

He said: "You don't need a big telescope. A magnification of 40 or 50 will enable you to see one of the polar ice caps and dark patches on the planet.

"Mars really does look red, or rather a kind of salmon pink. It's caused by rusty dust. Mars has a lot of iron in its soil, which gives the whole planet this reddish colour."

For a really spectacular view of Mars, however, it is best to wait until August 2003.

Then the planet will be closer to the Earth than it has been for about 6,000 years - a mere 34.8 million miles.

The European Mars Express mission is due to be launched in 2003.

It will carry the mainly British Beagle II probe, which will land on the planet to search for evidence of water and other signs of life .

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See also:

23 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
What now for Mars?
23 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
'We're quite excited' - Nasa
22 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Mars in pictures
10 May 01 | Americas
UFO spotters slam 'US cover-up'
14 Nov 00 | Scotland
First contact for UFO mecca?
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