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UCI Observatory to Play Host When Mars Makes Once-in-Eons Approach Near Earth

August 13, 2003|Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writer

The UC Irvine Observatory will open its doors to the public Aug. 27, the day Mars approaches Earth more closely than it has for 600 centuries.

The university's high-powered telescope will be available to anyone interested in seeing the red planet up close, observatory director Tammy Smecker-Hane said.

"Scientific researchers are not that excited, because we are not going to learn anything new," she said. "But the public is excited."

The observatory's telescope is roughly six times more powerful than the typical hobbyist's equipment. An additional 15 smaller telescopes will be made available, Smecker-Hane said. The free event will run from 9 to 11 p.m. The UCI Observatory is on the campus on Gabrielino Drive behind University Hills housing.

On that day, at 2:51 a.m., Mars will come within 34.7 million miles of Earth -- the shortest distance since 57,617 BC. The average distance between the two planets whenever their orbits match up is 48.5 million miles, Smecker-Hane said.

The features of Mars -- its dark canyons, white southern polar cap and fierce dust storms -- make it a favorite of many sky watchers, said Barbara Toy, club president of the Orange County Astronomers. Many of the group's 800 members plan to take advantage of the observatory's offer, she said. Others, however, plan to stay with favorite stargazing spots around Orange County.

"A lot of us only need a patch of clear sky," said Toy, of Laguna Beach.

To the naked eye, Mars will be the most brilliant body in the night sky, after the moon, for about a week before and after its close encounter with Earth, she said. Its reddish color will be easier to distinguish.

Toy is not surprised by all the excitement. "There's a lot of romance associated with Mars," she said.

A threat to the once-in-an-eon vista of the planet's surface, Toy said, is the possibility of Martian dust storms.

She has been tracking the approach and so far, so good.

"I have seen features in the eyepiece that I've never seen before, only in photographs," she said. For the best views, she suggests waiting until Mars climbs "pretty close to the central part of the sky."

It won't take another 60,000 years for Mars to come as close again. Astronomers estimate the next close approach will be in 2287.

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