Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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By Skywatching Columnist
updated 9/28/2007 3:17:24 PM ET 2007-09-28T19:17:24

Mars is coming!

You've probably heard that line before — no doubt fairly recently, thanks to a bogus e-mail that unfortunately received wide circulation on the Internet this summer with promises of Mars being as big as the full moon.

But this fact is absolutely true: Mars, the only planet whose surface we can see in any detail from the Earth, is now moving toward the best viewing position it will provide to us until the year 2016. Planet watchers have already begun readying their telescopes.

If you haven't seen it, it will be well worth looking for the red planet next week, even though you'll have to wait until after midnight to see it well.

Mars is currently midway between the zodiacal constellations of Taurus, the Bull and Gemini, the Twins and during this week it will rise shortly before 11 p.m. local daylight time. There is certainly no mistaking it once it comes up over the east-northeast horizon. Presently shining like a pumpkin-hued, zero magnitude star, Mars is currently tied for fifth place (with Vega) among the 21 brightest stars.

But as it continues to approach our Earth in the coming weeks and months, Mars will only be getting brighter: it will surpass Sirius, the brightest star in the sky by Dec. 9 and during the latter half of December it will even almost match Jupiter in brilliance.

Late next Wednesday night (or more precisely, early on Thursday morning), Mars will hover about 7-degrees above and to the right of the last quarter moon as they rise above the east-northeast horizon (your clenched fist held at arm's length is roughly 10-degrees in width). As you will see for yourself, the so-called "Red Planet" actually will appear closer to a yellow-orange tint — the same color of a dry desert under a high sun.

How close?
Every 26 months, or so, Earth makes a close approach to Mars, as our smaller, swifter orbit "overtakes" Mars around the sun. Because both the orbits of Mars and Earth are mildly elliptical, some close approaches between the two planets are closer than others.

This current apparition of Mars will be nowhere near as spectacular as the oft-referred approach of August 2003 when the planet came closer to Earth than it had in nearly 60,000-years.

Rather, on this upcoming occasion, Mars will come closest to Earth on the evening of Dec. 18 (at around 6:46 p.m. EST).

The planet will then lie 54.8 million miles (88.2 million kilometers) from Earth as measured from center to center. Mars will arrive at opposition to the sun (rising at sunset, setting at sunrise) six days later on Christmas Eve.

How big?

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 That recent Martian e-mail message, which was widely circulated for a fourth consecutive year, lead people to believe, with liberal use of exclamation marks, that on Aug. 27, Mars would appear as bright as (or as large as) that night's full moon in the night sky. The subject header urged viewers to prepare to view "Two Full Moons."

It was amazing (and a little disturbing) to see just how many people actually believed that Mars could loom so large in our sky. But the truth is that even when at its absolute closest possible approach to Earth, Mars can appear no larger than 1/72 as big as the moon; to the unaided eye it would appear as nothing more than an extremely bright, non-twinkling star.

When it comes closest to Earth on December 18th of this year, Mars' apparent disk diameter will be equal to 15.9 arc seconds. To get an idea of just how large this is, wait until darkness falls this week and if you have a telescope, check out Jupiter, gleaming in the southwestern sky; it'll appear about 35 arc seconds across.

In contrast, Mars' disk will appear less than half as big as Jupiter's when the Red Planet comes closest to Earth later this year. While this may sound small, keep in mind that this is still atypically large for Mars. Around the time that Mars is closest, amateurs with telescopes as small as 4 inches and magnifying above 120-power should be able to make out some dusky markings on the small yellow-orange disk, and perhaps the bright white polar cap.

Size isn't everything
From Dec. 15 through Dec. 29, Mars will blaze at magnitude -1.6, a bit brighter than Sirius, but just slightly inferior to Jupiter. Mars will still be positioned between Taurus and Gemini, at a rather high declination of about +27-degrees.

So almost as if to compensate for its relatively small apparent size, Mars will literally soar in the night sky of late-December.

When it reaches its highest point in the sky at around midnight local time, its altitude will be 70-degrees at Seattle, 76-degrees for New York, and an exceptional 83-degrees at Los Angeles. Meanwhile, amateur and professional astronomers stationed in southern Texas and central Florida will see Mars pass directly, or very nearly overhead!

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