Heavenly neighbor gets closer; Mars makes closest approach in 60,000 years

When Carol Nash of Ranchvale looks at the night sky, she is awed by its enormity and complexity.
“When you just think about the solar system and how the Earth is tilted just right to make the seasons and all these objects out there doing their thing, it’s just kind of amazing,” she said. “You can feel insignificant, or you can feel, ‘My goodness, this is just an amazing universe.’”
Each night this week is a “My goodness” kind of night as Mars makes its closest visit to Earth in 60,000 years.
The red planet is clearly visible by naked eye in the southeast sky as soon as it’s dark. Using even a modest telescope, area star gazers can see the planet’s southern ice cap.
The Clovis Astronomy Club has scheduled a Mars-star party for Friday night at the Clovis Archery Range, which is located just north of Ned Houk Park. Nash, the club’s secretary, said club members would provide five or six telescopes … and expertise.
“You can ask questions, you can talk about the constellations … there are nebulas and galaxies to see through the telescope besides Mars,” she said.
Mars will be the main attraction because it’s a last-chance proposition for all alive today: Mars won’t be as close again until Aug. 28, 2287.
Just 34.6 million miles of space are separating the two planets today. If that doesn’t sound close, Mars was five times as distant just six months ago.
For the next several weeks the fourth rock from the sun should shine brighter than any other nighttime celestial body, save the moon and Venus.
“Mars you can’t miss; it’s bright and red,” said Myles Standish, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Aldo Vitagliano, of the University of Naples in Italy, calculated that Mars hasn’t had as close a brush with Earth since Sept. 12, 57617 B.C., when Neanderthals ruled but modern man had begun to make inroads.
Next week, astronomers will send radio waves from antennas on Earth that will bounce off Mars to study the terrain where one of the two NASA rovers is targeted to land in January. The close proximity will improve the resolution of the radar images, said Albert Haldemann, deputy project scientist for the rover mission.
Planetariums around the world have planned Mars-gazing parties this week, and the Hubble Space Telescope is expected to take a close-approach portrait of Mars.
Closer to home, Nash — perhaps best known as the longtime pronouncer for the regional spelling bee competition — credits her brother, Gerald White of San Jon, with helping her discover planets and stars.
“He knew about them and he could point to the stars and name them and I thought that was impressive and so I started to learn myself,” she said.
Nash said she’s not sure if galaxies far, far away are home to intelligent life. But isn’t it fun to wonder about the possibilities.
“It seems like as big as the universe is … it seems like there ought to be life out there somewhere,” she said.
Freedom Newspapers Editor David Stevens and The Associated Press contributed to this report.