JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Aug. 27, 2003 — Mars, the planet the ancients feared and revered as the Red One, the Fiery One, or Death Star, made its closest pass to Earth in 60,000 years Wednesday, glowing a pale orange in a moonless night sky.
Mars is usually about 140 million miles away from Earth, but on Wednesday its orbit brought it about 34.6 million miles away, reaching the closest point at 5:46 a.m. ET. The planet will not be so close to Earth again until 2287.
Tertius Dormehl and his two children were among those waiting in the long lines wrapped around the parking lot of Johannesburg’s planetarium to gaze through telescopes.
“It’s stunning, so bright that it’s incredible. It gets your mind wandering to space travel — the ultimate adventure,” said Dormehl, 40, a project manager at an information technology firm.
For the sharpest eye on Mars, there was no beating the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, which snapped dramatic close-ups of the passing planet.
“They are quite spectacular. You knew they were going to be good; seeing them is something else,” said Michael Wolff, an astronomer with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “These are the best that have ever been, and will ever be taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.”
Good views for several days
David Laney, head astronomer of the Cape Town Observatory, said that the best vantage point was Tahiti, but that viewing would be spectacular anywhere. The good viewing will last for several days as Mars pulls away from Earth, astronomers say.
“The planet is at its biggest and brightest from any position,” Laney said. “There is something special about being eyeball to eyeball with Mars.”
Budding astronauts abounded at the Johannesburg planetarium.
“I want to study outer space, and I’d really like to go to Mars,” said 8-year-old Jessica Gallacher. Her ponytailed friend, 7-year-old Robin Walker, said she’d stay away. “I’m scared there would be aliens there,” she said.
The Vatican’s Jesuit astronomers at the pope’s observatory at Castel Gandolfo manned their 40cm Zeiss telescope for some nighttime viewing, said the Rev. Sabino Maffeo, the retired director of the observatory.
In Australia, the skies cleared over Sydney and thousands of people went out to catch a glimpse of the planet in the eastern sky. The view got better overnight Wednesday as Mars rose in the horizon.
About 3,000 people gathered along Hong Kong’s waterfront for a closer look. Some waited to peer through a telescope atop Hong Kong’s Space Museum, while others settled for the naked eye and cameras.
In Argentina, hundreds of people bundled up against the South American winter chill and passed the night at Buenos Aires planetarium to look through three telescopes set up for the occasion.
The ones who waited until just before sunrise got the best views. Some Argentines looking through two small telescopes saw a blurry, fuzzy whitish ball. But those who looked through a more powerful telescope said they could make out the polar cap on one side.
Ezequiel Herrera, one of those in line, said it was worth the wait.
“This is a something that you can’t do everyday. I don’t have a telescope in my house. You can see it well. You can see the polar extremes,” he said.
In Lebanon, thousands gathered at the country’s highest peak Tuesday night to try to see Mars through binoculars and telescopes. They came together near the Cedar forest of Black Peak, in northern Lebanon, which is more than 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) high.
Whole families came to the mountaintop. Some lit bonfires and others drove to the mountain from south Lebanon, about four hours away.
The mood was festive in Johannesburg. Music blared from speakers and people spilled over the planetarium’s steps scrambling for tickets to a show on Mars.
“I am interested to find out more about the rest of the solar system — not just to be stuck here on Earth,” joked Philippa Nel, a 24-year-old accountant.
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