Mars attacks

Close-encounter events planned

by Yoko Hani

As the day draws near when Mars makes its closest encounter with Earth for 60,000 years, Japan’s astronomical observatories are launching “Mars Week” on Aug. 22 in an effort to get “more than 100 million people” across the country to go outside and see for themselves Earth’s planetary neighbor.

The Red Planet beloved of sci-fi writers and revered by the Romans, who gave its name to their god of war, is relentlessly approaching Earth, and will be at its closest Aug. 27. On that day, 55.76 million km of space will separate the two — their closest pass since around September 57,617 B.C., when their elliptical orbits brought the heavenly bodies within just 55.72 million km of each other.

To see the sky the way Neanderthal people did, keep watching the bright dot in the southeast at night.

“This Mars encounter has a special meaning,” says Takehiko Kuroda, director of Nishi Harima Astronomical Observatory in Hyogo Prefecture. “Nobody has actually experienced such a close encounter with Mars. This is a historical event.”

Kuroda, who is chairman of the Mars Week events, explains that Mars goes once round the Sun every 687 days, and its closest approach to Earth is every 26 months. But because of its elliptical orbit, the closeness of the encounter varies.

“You may say, it is just a matter of astronomical calculation, but we strongly urge everyone to look up the sky for once on this occasion, and to think about the cosmos.”

Among astronomy professionals, there has long been great interest in studying our next-door neighbor, and probes to Mars have already yielded some remarkable images as well as a wealth of data. This year, too, both NASA and the European Space Agency have launched probes to explore the surface of the Red planet.

Although Mars has stimulated people’s imagination about the possibility of life on another planet, the probes to date have shown there is little foundation for such speculation, according to Kuroda. Nonetheless, the Red Planet is still the subject of close attention because it is a planet where life may exist — even though it may be simple bacteria living below the surface, Kuroda explains.

Meanwhile, some may be wondering whether the coming close encounter may affect Earth’s plants, animals or weather. Scientifically, it will have no effect on Earth, Kuroda says.

So, back to Mars Week — and how best to observe this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Some people are tooling up in earnest: Miwako Watanabe (president of Watanabe Kyogu Seisakujo, a manufacturing company in Saitama Prefecture) usually sells 50 26-cm diameter, 13,000 yen Mars globes every year. This year she’s already shifted 200. Also, according to Vixen Co., an optical-instrument maker also in Saitama Prefecture, sales of their astronomical telescopes priced from 10,000 yen to 100,000 yen have risen, well, astronomically, in July and August — up from around 10,000 last year to more than 30,000 this year.

Even without either of these to assist you, though, Mars will be bright enough to see. “Even in the midst of a city it will be plain to see,” says Kuroda, who adds that “a very bright, reddish dot in the southeast sky” is what we should look out for — and that “it will be especially clear until the end of September.”

“It is easy and everybody can find it,” Kuroda says. “Though I hope they won’t mistakenly think it is a UFO.”