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Astronomer: 'This is our time to get Mars'

Astronomy magazine editor Dave Eicher says Mars will be the brightest object in the southeastern sky.
Astronomy magazine editor Dave Eicher says Mars will be the brightest object in the southeastern sky.

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(CNN) -- The planet Mars will orbit closer to Earth this week than any time in nearly 60,000 years, offering amateur and professional astronomers unprecedented views of the Red Planet.

Dave Eicher, editor of Astronomy magazine and author of seven books on astronomical observing, spoke with CNN's Renay San Miguel about this week's dazzling sky show.

SAN MIGUEL: This has got to be a great time for you and all the other astronomers out there.

EICHER: Mars fever has caught, not only for amateur astronomers, who are getting their best look at the planet ever and that we'll ever have in our life, but also for professionals, with the Mars rovers and other spacecraft that are en route.

SAN MIGUEL: I don't have a doctorate in physics or anything, but describe why this is happening right now? Why is it so much closer?

EICHER: We are in a very fortunate time. Because both Mars and Earth's orbits are not circular, we play a bit of a roulette wheel that goes around. Every once in a while, although we have oppositions, when the planets are fairly close, every couple of years, we don't have one that is this close -- which is about 34.6 million miles away from Earth -- for a very long time, 60,000 years, and we don't have one as good as this coming until about 2287 at the earliest. So this is our time to get Mars and to make the most of this week that is coming up.

SAN MIGUEL: Exactly. Get your telescopes now because it's gonna be a long time before it happens again. So tell us what time of day? What direction in the sky? Tell us how to view this with our telescopes.

EICHER: If you go out and look late in the evening, 10 or 11, look to the southeast, Mars will be by far the brightest object in the sky. It is dazzlingly bright, it will look like a star to the naked eye and in binoculars, but you'll see its orangy color very well with a small telescope. And this is where we really get lucky with this because we are in a time now where you can get a four or six inch telescope very easily for a couple or three hundred dollars. Go out and look at Mars and see features, features that are dark and bright patches of the Martian desert, and also the south polar cap very very easily with a small telescope, at fairly low magnification.

SAN MIGUEL: And this is going on right now. It's already pretty bright. I'm wondering, over a period of days, how many days can we expect this to go on?

EICHER: It's going on right now. We reach the closest point, that magic 34.6 million mile whisker distance, on Wednesday, and then we'll look ahead and we'll be able to see Mars well into October, and have it very large in our sky. It's nearly as large as Jupiter, which is typically much larger in our sky, and so we'll be able to continue on with this, although the best point will come midweek this week.

SAN MIGUEL: I have to ask though, those who can't even afford 300 bucks for a telescope, can it still marvel you with the naked eye?

EICHER: You can see that it is dazzlingly bright just with the eye alone. You can see that orange color because Mars is a rusted planet that is covered with iron oxide in its deserts. You can see its colors strikingly, you can also check and see if there might be an astronomy group in your area, a club or a society or a little party that might be going on. You may want to go and grab onto a telescope and get a closeup view, which will show you these details of dusty regions and regions that are not so dusty on the planet. Also the frozen polar cap.

SAN MIGUEL: How are NASA and other space agencies taking advantage of this situation? Tell me about the probe that will be heading Mars' way.

EICHER: They are en route right now, and will be arriving, a quartet of satellites, in January. The American landers, the Mars rovers, will be. As opposed to the laser printer size of the Mars Pathfinder rover that we had in 1997, we now have some golf cart-size rovers that are much larger and more sophisticated, and they are going to very much more exciting locations. Where one of the American rovers is going is clearly an ancient dried lakebed where we can see there was a lot of water floating around on the surface of the planet in Mars' ancient history. We are going to get a closeup look as to why Mars might have been warm and wet and is now cold and dry. We've also got a European lander, Beagle 2, going there, and of course the Japanese orbital probe that will be looking at Mars' atmosphere. So we expect to get a very good closeup look at where the water was on Mars and perhaps start to solve that riddle of what happened to Mars. Why it might have been a very vital, wet planet with lots of stuff flowing around the surface of the planet, and somehow became very carbon dioxide-rich and died.

SAN MIGUEL: As an astronomer who knows how to find Mars whether it's close or far away, how do you maximize this time, what's going on right now, to get people interested in astronomy?

EICHER: We have a lot of interest now, and there's certainly a great amount of interest on the newsstand, on our Web site, astronomy.com, and also this is one of the big events since several bright comets a number of years ago that got a lot of people into this, and realizing they can go out and it's very easy to, with a small telescope, even binoculars, see these things as a world. We can see in a four inch telescope Mars as a little globe with features on it , that even though it may be a long ways away, it is our nearest celestial neighbor. We also have a couple of bright comets that are coming up this coming spring, so we hope that will engender a lot of interest in the subject and show people how easy it is to go out, step into the universe, and look into the three-dimensional cosmos that surrounds us every day.

You know it usually is a comet, like Halley's comet or some of the others that have been around in the last few years, to get people involved in looking skyward. Now you've got a planet.


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