18 August 2005

Mars Approaches

We are about to make our biennial close approach to Mars. This means:
  • Mars will be bigger and more visible, especially in the northern hemisphere. Look at it!
  • This is a good time for spacecraft to explore Mars -- Some are active and others are making the trip.

image of round planet mars
This flash animation shows why mars appears so much larger over the next couple of months -- it is a lot closer than usual.

Time To See Mars Up Close

Over the next couple of months Mars will become brighter and more visible in the northern hemisphere, reaching its closest approach to Earth in October. Mars is currently (August 2005) a morning star, rising about midnight and overhead at dawn. In early October it will be rising about 9 pm. Sky and Telescope has a good site for observers. Use their sky chart aplet to find where Mars will be tonight for your location (disable pop-up blockers to make it work).

Probes Visiting Mars

It takes a spacecraft a couple of years to get to Mars. The two most active probes today, Mars Express and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, were launched in 2003. Spirit and Opportunity continue to do useful science and exploration on the surface. Mars Express is beginning to send back spectacular and interesting photographs and other data.

photo of ice in crater on MarsThis Mars Express photo shows a frozen lake of water ice at the bottom of a crater near the Martian north pole. The lake is about 10 kilometers wide. It is believed this lake of ice is present year-round. More info on these photos here.

The sophisticated sounding radar aboard Mars Express has also begun collecting data. Developed by the Italian space agency ASI, with UniversitĂ  La Sapienza di Roma, JPL, and the University of Iowa, it is the first orbiting instrument able to probe beneath the surface. It can also probe the Martian ionosphere.

Current Mars Probes

MissionSponsorObjective & Status
as of August 2005
Mars Global SurveyorNASA/JPLLaunched 1996; imaging, communications relay, other survey instruments
2001 Mars OdysseyNASA/JPLLaunched 2001; now in extended mission mapping geologic and surface features, communications relay
Mars ExpressESALaunched 2003; photogeology, minerological mapping, climatology
Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and OpportunityNASA/JPLLaunched 2003; roving landers, surface geology
Mars Reconnaissance OrbiterNASA/JPLLaunched August 2005; high-resolution photography, communications relay
PhoenixNASA/ U. ArizonaPlanned launch August 2007; geochemical laboratory lander to martian arctic

The two NASA Mars Rovers (also here) continue to do interesting science on Mars, more than a year after their first explorations. For instance:
Don't pass up this chance to see more of Mars.

Further Information

Earlier posts in this blog:
Life on Mars?
Space Probes

Mars Astrobiology Magazine

Here is a nice page with lots of Mars info.

Some nice Mars graphics.

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