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The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"If you miss it - don't worry - two years from now Mars will be bigger and brighter than it's been for 7000 years"
 real 56k

Astronomer Heather Couper
"You'll see a really red glow in the sky"
 real 56k

Rob Warren from the Royal Observatory
explains what we will be seeing
 real 56k

Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
Mars set to dazzle
Graphic BBC
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Mars is at its brightest. It is also nearly at its closest approach to Earth.

Technically, the Red Planet is in opposition. This means the Earth lies directly between the Sun and Mars. You should find it due south at local midnight and in the best observation position for many years - certainly since 1988.

Astronomers, professional and amateur, have turned their telescopes towards the planet, hoping to capture some spectacular images.

Mars and the Earth are approaching each other. The pair are closest together on 21 - 22 June when they will be 67 million kilometres apart (41 million miles).

Rusty planet

The "star" with the red, dusky light that dominates the night sky at midnight is definitely worth a look. Indeed, viewed through my own telescope on recent nights I could make out markings on its surface and the suggestion of a whitish polar cap.

Mars Facts
Average distance from the Sun: 228 million kilometres
Length of day: 24.6 Earth Hours
Length of year: 1.88 Earth years
Diameter: 6,792 kilometres
Tallest volcano in the Solar System: Olympus Mons, 25 kilometres high
Moons: Phobos and Deimos
But you do not need a telescope to go out and admire Mars' light and to see why the ancients dubbed it the God of War because it reminded them of a drop of blood in the sky. The red colour, incidentally, comes from iron oxide on its surface. Mars is rusty.

It might be the best opposition in years but observers from northern latitudes will see Mars low-down on the Southern horizon. Although it only reaches 12 degrees above the horizon it cannot be missed because of its striking red colour.

Observers in the Southern Hemisphere are ideally placed, with Mars passing high overhead.

Satellite mapping

Mars oppositions occur every two years and two months. This one is particularly good as the planet is relatively close to the Earth and therefore appears larger than usual. This opposition is a preview for the next one in 2003, which will be truly spectacular for Northern Hemisphere observers.

Mars Odyssey Nasa
Mars Odyssey arrives later this year
Although observing surface features on Mars is something that really excites astronomers, Earth-based observations of Mars are not as valuable as they used to be. This is because circling Mars is Nasa's Mars Global Surveyor. This spacecraft has recently completed 10,000 mapping orbits.

Despite this, astronomers are keeping a close watch on Mars in the coming months. Some predict that there may be planet-wide dust storms as Mars approaches perihelion - its closest position to the Sun - in October.

By then, however, it will be receding into the distance once more as seen from Earth, but we should get another close-up view when the Mars Odyssey 2001 spacecraft arrives that month.

Hubble Nasa
Hubble's close-up view of Mars
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See also:

25 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Nasa: No face - honest
07 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Mars mission lifts off
23 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Water may flow on Mars
11 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Spacecraft to go back to Mercury
09 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
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