Public Invited To View Mars Through Telescopes -- Sponsored By Virginia Tech Department Of Physics And Blacksburg Department Of Parks And Recreation

BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 29, 2003 – If you think you missed out on seeing Mars, it's not too late!

The Virginia Tech Department of Physics and Blacksburg Department of Parks and Recreation will host a Mars observation program on Friday, September 5 from 10 p.m. until midnight on the athletic fields at Kipps Elementary School in Blacksburg. In case of inclement weather and/or poor viewing conditions due to clouds, the rain date will be on Saturday, Sept. 6 from 10 p.m. until midnight.

Several telescopes will be focused on the red planet and the public will be assisted in their viewing by Virginia Tech students from the Astronomy Club and the Society of Physics Students.

"The most impressive surface features will actually be more favorably positioned during this program than when Mars was closest to Earth," said John Simonetti, associate professor of physics at Virginia Tech. "Mars will be higher in the sky during this program, affording an excellent view and it will only be two percent smaller than at its recent maximum size."

The darkest, most easily seen feature on the planet (Syrtis Major) will be present on the side facing Earth during the time of the observing program. The south polar ice cap will also be visible at this time.

Mars will start out low in the southeast after sunset, and after clearing the site line of the Earth's atmosphere, will be best viewed closer to midnight. Being higher up in the sky will more than compensate for Mars being farther away: the surface features on Mars will be much easier to see if Mars is higher up. This effect is much more important for observers than the distance to Mars.

Mars will still be at 98% of its maximum size during these observing sessions because the Earth-Mars distance will have increased by only about 2% since its closest point on August 27. "That's like viewing the star on Mill Mountain in Roanoke from a vantage point in Blacksburg and moving about one-half mile further away --- it won't make any perceptible change in the size of Mars," said Simonetti.