Image: Telescope store
Amateur astronomer Dragon Nikin looks at telescopes at an American Science & Surplus store in Chicago. Telescope companies are reporting a surge of interest as the Aug. 27 close encounter between Mars and Earth approaches.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

The biggest Mars encounter in more than 50,000 years is under way, and that has sparked an upsurge in products related to the Red Planet, ranging from books to telescopes.

Mars mania is on the rise along with the Red Planet, which is heading toward an unusually close pass with Earth on Aug. 27. The two planets will be about 34.65 million miles (55.75 million kilometers) away from each other — as close as they’ve been since around the year 57,617 B.C. (the precise date is still under debate). Astronomers say the next time they’ll come that close again will be on Aug. 28, 2287.

“Anytime there’s an astronomical event — this encounter, or for another example, if a comet comes into view — it does spark an increase in sales,” says Brent Kikawa, marketing manager for Meade Instruments Corp., one of the world’s biggest commercial telescope-makers.

Other giants in the telescope world, including Celestron and Orion, also are reporting sales spikes. Orion Telescopes & Binoculars is seeing a 15 to 20 percent rise above the typical summer figures, said the company’s president, Tom Anglo.

“We wish Mars was doing this every year,” he told MSNBC.com.

In fact, some amateur astronomers say Mars is being overshadowed by the marketing. Sam Davidson, corresponding secretary of the Andromeda Society in Yucca Valley, Calif., suspects that the hype is in part directed at boosting telescope sales.

“There’s a blackout in rational thinking about this event,” Davidson told MSNBC.com. “This is a very worthwhile event — you can see it blooming and getting brighter — but you can get a similar view in 15 years. So why talk about 50,000 or 60,000 years?”

Besides, all the hype applies to telescope views rather than naked-eye observations, Davidson noted. “Without any magnification, Mars looks like a tennis ball at 600 yards,” he said.

Stocking up
That may be precisely why amateurs are stocking up on items to bring out the details in that red sparkling speck. At last weekend’s International Mars Society Conference in Eugene, Ore., scores of enthusiasts snapped up No. 21 Orange telescope eyepiece filters — just the thing for highlighting details in a magnified view.

The Orange No. 21 costs $15 to $20, if it can be found. “We’ll be getting some more in at the end of the month,” one dealer said, in what’s become a typical response. (That’s not too late for Mars-watchers, since the view through a telescope should be just about as good through September.)

Filters of other colors bring out particular features — for example, the polar caps, dust storms or Martian maria.

For serious telescope users, Sirius Optics has created a specialized Mars 2003 filter that goes for $40 to $80, depending on where you shop.

Free Mars
A couple of the top recommendations for maximizing your Mars viewing are absolutely free: If you own a telescope, a free software program called Mars Previewer II gives you an idea of what you can see. You can download a virus-free version from Sky & Telescope’s Web site.

If you don’t own a telescope, you can get a free peek, along with expert guidance at one of the many Mars parties being planned over the next few weeks. The Planetary Society and Universe Today are keeping tabs on Mars parties worldwide.

You can also check with your local astronomy club for additional events in your area.

Read all about it
There’s plenty of information on what to look for: All you need to know is that, with the moon and Venus out of the way, Mars is now the brightest object in the night sky, rising after sunset as an orangish sparkle and fading out each morning in the west.

On the Web, you can find free guidance from Space.com as well as other sources ranging from Heavens-Above to Jack Horkheimer of “Star Gazer” fame.

Looking beyond this month’s encounter, there are scads of books that provide the full story on the Red Planet. Here’s a sampling of past, present and future publications:

“Mars: Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet” is a coffee-table tome that highlights imagery from the Mars Pathfinder mission. You can even glimpse panoramic 3-D views of the Martian surface with the aid of red-blue glasses included with the book.

“A Traveler’s Guide to Mars” is written in the style of a Fodor’s travel guide by planetary scientist/artist William K. Hartmann. The president of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin, praised the newly published book as the first volume to draw extensively on discoveries made by post-Viking Mars probes such as Pathfinder, Global Surveyor and Odyssey.

“Mars on Earth,” due for publication this fall, is Zubrin’s account of the Mars analog experiments being conducted on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, based in part on his dispatches for MSNBC.com. You can read this year’s crop of “Letters From Mars” from crew journalist April Childress, free of charge.

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