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November 1, 2005
WAUKESHA, WI — As twilight fades on these autumn evenings, a fiery beacon gleams low in the eastern sky. This brilliant orange “star” is actually the planet Mars, and it appears brighter in the next few weeks than it will again until 2018.
Mars reaches its peak appearance from the end of October through November 10. Two dates stand out in particular: On October 29, Mars came closest to Earth. At 11 P.M. EDT that evening, the Red Planet was 43.1 million miles (69.4 million kilometers) from Earth. Then, the night of November 6/7, Mars lies opposite the Sun and remains visible all night.
Although astronomers point to these two dates, anyone looking to the sky throughout this 2-week period will be impressed. Mars shines brighter than any other point of light in the sky once Venus dips below the southwestern horizon. And each evening, the Red Planet climbs a bit higher in the sky.
Mars also impresses with the company it keeps. Look to the left of the planet and you should see a tight group of stars. This is the Pleiades star cluster, sometimes called the Seven Sisters, the brightest such group in the sky. The Pleiades appears best through binoculars, which reveal dozens of stars.
For backyard observers with a telescope, now is the time to view Mars. The planet looms larger in the eyepiece than at any time since its historic appearance in August 2003. However, for Northern Hemisphere observers, the planet stands 30° higher than it did 2 years ago. The greater altitude means light from Mars travels through less of Earth’s turbulent atmosphere, so the views of Mars should be as crisp as they were in 2003.
As you gaze at Mars, remember that scientists have sent emissaries from Earth to explore it. For the past 21 months, two rovers have been roaming the planet’s surface. Spirit and Opportunity yielded the first ironclad proof that water once flowed across Mars.
In addition to these rovers, three orbiting spacecraft examine the planet from above. A fourth one, called Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), is on its way. It will arrive at Mars next March and, during the course of a 5-year mission, will return more data to Earth than all previous Mars missions combined. MRO will help scientists understand the history and current distribution of water on the planet, and inspect possible future landing sites.
Fast facts about Mars: