Mars is coming

Mars is on my mind. Not because of the War of the Worlds, a story about a Martian invasion of earth which I read when I was 13 and which has been made into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Cruise. No, it is because planet Mars has been one of the brightest objects in the sky for some time.  However, there is bogus information circulating on the Internet about Mars. You may have received the email. The headlines read: “Earth is catching up with Mars for the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history." "On August 27th, Mars will look as large as the full moon.” It continues, "No one alive today will ever see this again."  Unfortunately, these claims are all false.

It is true that Earth and Mars are converging for a close encounter this year on October 30th at 0319 Universal Time. To someone looking at the planet with the naked eye, Mars will look like a bright red star certainly not as large as the full Moon. This may be disappointing after the claims on the net. But if Mars did come close enough to be as large as the Moon, its gravity would change the orbit of the Earth and cause massive tidal surges.

Presently, Mars is fifth among the brightest objects in the night sky, beaten only by the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Sirius the brightest star in the sky.  As it continues to approach Earth, Mars will be getting brighter. It will outshine Sirius on Sept. 21 and on Oct. 4 it will be as bright as Jupiter.

Readers should stay up on the night of Aug. 24 because Mars will hover below the waning Moon.  Astronomers say that Mars, also known as the Red Planet,  will appear closer to a yellow-orange tint. Another encounter with Mars on August 27, 2003 was the closest in recorded history.

In late 1877, Mars was also very close to Earth and Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli took advantage of this peering at it through a new telescope The colorblind Schiaparelli  saw a network of dark, narrow lines.  He named the crisscrossing lines "canali" -- Italian for "channels." The term was translated into English as "canals." What happened next was a long-running myth that intelligent creatures on Mars had constructed water canals.

H.G. Wells’ famous novel the War of the Worlds capitalized on this. When Orson Wells (no relation) broadcasted the War of the Worlds on radio in 1938, people all over the United States believed Martians had landed and there was widespread panic.  This year Mars is coming, not the Martians.  The Red Planet will give us its best apparition until 2018.  Enjoy it.

By Nirmal Jivan Shah, published on the People Newspaper, Seychelles, 25 August 2005.

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