chuckpeters writes "An astronaut friend told us about how the nuts out there seem to think that Mars is going to collide with the earth or the moon, or the gravitational forces are going to rip the earth apart or cause massive earthquakes. While in a co-workers office listening to a co-worker take a call about the possibility of such calamities, our astronaut friend yelled "Quick, duck! It's Mars"! No longer welcome in that office, he's back worshiping launch complex 39A. The true gravity of the situation is much less benign. The fact is I have never seen Mars look so bright or red as the other night, it's definitely time to gaze at the red planet. NASA isn't going to be worrying about Mars colliding with Earth, but they will be keeping a close eye on Mars. During this close approach, NASA will be inviting the public to help decide what areas on the red planet to photograph." More information below about the unique position of the red planet - take advantage of this once-in-a-3x-lifetime event.
On August 27th, Mars will be closer to Earth than in all of recorded history. The event is a rare display of orbital events in the cosmic clockwork of space. It is the chance of a lifetime for everyone to go out and see Mars and never before, and never again in our lifetimes!
The event is much more than just an opposition though because Martian oppositions occur about every 25 months.
What makes this opposition so special? This year, the Mars opposition occurs at the same time that Mars is at perihelion, which means Mars, in its orbit, is closest to the Sun and near when Earth is at aphelion (farthest point from Sun.)
At 5:51 a.m. EDT on the night of August 27, 2003, Mars will be within 34,646,418 miles (55,758,006 km) of Earth. To compare this to an earlier opposition: in 2001 when Mars was last at opposition, the red planet was more than 41 million miles (67 million km) from Earth. The most recent perihelion and opposition took place in September 1988 when Mars passed within 36.5 million miles (58.7 million km) of Earth.
When will Mars be this close to Earth again? The next, closer approach will occur on August 28, 2287 when Mars will be 34.62 million miles (55.69 million km) away. But we won't be around for that one, so you don't want to miss this close approach!
When and Where to see Mars - Best viewing is about midnight in the southern sky. One good way to find more precise viewing of Mars as well as identifying the various features, is using Xephem. We put together some tables which include local sunset times and Mars rising times for August 27th for various locations in the US, Europe, Middle East etc...
Currently Mars is moving the opposite direction from all the other planets. While the other plenets appear to be moving towards the east over time, Mars is displaying retrograde motion and moving westward.
Because Mars is so small it's difficult to see details most of the time or in small telescopes. Since Mars is going to be so much closer than usual, even a 4 inch telescope will show details not normally visible. There are also various filters you can use to enhance observing. Mars through a Telescope: Getting the Most from the Red Planet covers what equipment to use and what specific features to look for on Mars.
Although one night has been advertised as "the night" when Mars will be closest, the red planet will appear large and bright for the next few months. Mars will also be changing seasons and that means you will be able to spot changes in surface features over time. It's summer in the southern hemisphere of Mars and the south polar cap is melting rather quickly. If you observe over a period of days you will be able to see the terrain underneath the ice appear.
Go out and enjoy this cosmic show, but you needn't worry about any unexpected cosmic collisions, Mars Will Not Kill You."