Earthlings revel in Mars close-up
Planetary approach is nearest in 60,000 years
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- The last time the red planet was this close to Earth 60,000 years ago, man lived in caves.
No wonder when Mars and Earth synchronized their orbits a few minutes before 6 a.m. EDT Wednesday -- bringing them closer to each other than at any time in recorded history -- thousands of people around the globe went outside to take a peek.
"Knowing that this is once in a lifetime that I can see another planet with the naked eye, yeah, it's great," said Rebecca Horton, a stargazer from Sydney, Australia.
Astronomers say Mars, five times closer now than six months ago, is about 34.6 million miles away, making it the brightest nighttime object except the moon.
"It is possible to get some fairly close encounters every few years," said amateur astronomer Paul Shallow. "It does come around, but not this close."
But with the far-away planet getting so close, some hopeful watchers felt gypped by Mother Nature.
In Oakland, California, where hundreds of space fans paid $11 to attend the Chabot Space & Science Center's "Mars Mania Costume Party," clouds rolled in along with night sky Tuesday. Mars was fogged out, and there were no refunds.
But the good news is that Mars will remain a stunning nighttime attraction for weeks. Most sky watchers can see the planet, presently in the constellation Aquarius, in the southeastern sky soon after sunset, high overhead during the midnight hours and in the southwestern sky before sunrise.
Backyard telescopes may coax features out of the reddish, orange blur, including dark, mottled streaks, which inspired scientists of past centuries to envision intricate canals and advanced Martian civilizations.
The rare configuration of 2003 has stoked renewed, albeit not as fanciful, interest in Mars, which on average cruises 50 million miles farther from the sun than Earth does.
About every 26 months, the two planets pass relatively close to one another, during periods now known as opposition.
What makes this one noteworthy is that Mars, which follows an extremely elliptical or egg-shaped path, is currently at it closest point to the sun during its orbit.
Those two conditions, along with a few obscure celestial variables, have produced an astronomical chance of a lifetime, or several lifetimes actually.
Mars won't pass closer to Earth until 2287, according to astronomers.
Besides awing the curious, the alignment has motivated numerous governments to dispatch missions to the red planet.
Taking advantage of the shorter trip distance, two U.S. and two European probes set off earlier this year, all to arrive at the end of the year.
"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, as you know, with the [NASA] Mars Rovers and other spacecraft that are en route," said David Eicher, editor of Astronomy magazine.