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Lighting up the night sky

Warning: Objects in the sky may be brighter than they normally appear.

As it slowly draws as close to Earth as it has been in more than 60,000 years, Mars has decorated evening skies with a tinge of red for the past month and will continue to do so through September.

“It looks kind of like an airliner with its landing lights on, and it’s thinking about landing in your driveway,” said Craig MacDougal, planetarium coordinator of Saunders Planetarium at the Museum of Science and Industry on Fowler Avenue.

The reason Mars appears especially bright at the moment is because it will eventually line up directly with the Earth on the same side of the sun. MacDougal said that Earth and Mars catch up to each other every 26 months while rotating around the sun, but differently shaped orbits cause the distance between the planets to vary.

“This time around we happen to be catching up to Mars right when it is at its closest point to the sun, hence it will be closest to us,” MacDougal said.

On Wednesday, at approximately 5:51 a.m., Mars will be at its closet point to the Earth, some 35 million miles away.

MacDougal said the Earth gets about this close to Mars every 15 years.

“In 2018, to the eye and even in the telescope, it’ll look just about as good as it does this year,” he said. “But everybody loves a record, so everybody’s all excited about it.”

Excitement over Mars began long before now and is often attributed to its similarities to Earth.

Fourth planet from the sun, Mars has a similar axis to that of the Earth, giving it weather, seasons and approximately the same length of day. A little larger than half the size of Earth, the surface of Mars has canyons, volcanoes and ice caps in its north and south polar regions.

MacDougal said that if Mars had water in liquid form, the planet would resemble Earth with continents rising up from a surface dominated by water.

“Mars has plenty of water, but with the conditions as of right now, it’s too cold and the air is much too thin to have liquid water on the surface,” MacDougal said. “It’s either in the form of ice, or if it gets heated up by sunlight it evaporates directly into the air.”

Recently, NASA dispatched two land-rover robots to Mars to conduct more research. Spirit, launched June 10, and Opportunity, launched July 7, are scheduled to land in January on opposite sides of the planet. While there, the rovers will take photographs, examine rocks and surface matter, and look for proof of past life and water. Aside from NASA’s rovers, probes from Great Britain and Japan are also en route to carry out exploration on Mars.

In recognition of Mars’ close proximity, many science centers are offering the use of their telescopes to the public. MOSI will have its first viewing tonight, on top of the IMAX theater dome from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. for $3. Free viewings will be held at the Science Center of Pinellas County at various times tonight, Saturday, and Sept. 6. The St. Petersburg Astronomy Club will have free viewings outside the Gulf Port Casino on Saturday and Sept. 5.

Even the naked eye can get a good look at the planet. Facing south, Mars can be seen in the east portion of the sky around 10 p.m., and by 5 a.m. the planet has moved across the horizon and into the west. Most people notice the color, a hue ranging between yellow and orange.

“The color is really variable from person to person because it depends on how your eye perceives the light in the sky,” MacDougal said. “Being this close just makes it very striking. It’s bright enough that people who don’t normally look up at the sky are noticing it.”