Take A Closer Look as Mars Approaches Earth

Sky watchers will get a treat this month as Earth and Mars make their closest approach to each other in thousands of years.

Throughout August 2003, the Red Planet has appeared bigger and brighter in the night sky as its orbit brings it closer to Earth. But at 5:51 a.m. Aug. 27, Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been at any time in the past 59,000 years, said Jim Sowell, an astronomer and physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"Normally it's one of the brightest objects in the heavens, but Mars will double in brightness during this period," Sowell said. "It is almost already as big as it is going to appear, and it will stay this large through September."

Through a telescope, Mars should appear as an orange disk with possibly a white ice cap, he said. But there are other ways for the public to catch a glimpse of the planet, too.

Today, NASA announced it will allow sky watchers an unprecedented opportunity to suggest places on Mars that should be photographed from a spacecraft orbiting the planet. Camera operators for NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft are ready to take suggestions online for new places for images from the Mars Orbiter Camera.

The spacecraft, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been orbiting Mars since 1997, having conducted more than 20,000 orbits so far. The Mars Orbiter Camera onboard has taken more than 120,000 pictures in that time.

Many of the camera's images have sharp enough resolution to show features as small as a school bus. The images have revealed relatively recent gully erosion, ancient sedimentary rocks and many other spectacular scientific surprises.

An online gallery of pictures taken by the camera is available at the link below.

"We've only covered about three percent of the surface area of Mars with the high-resolution camera. We want to be sure we're not missing some place that could be important, so we're casting a wide net for new suggestions," said Dr. Ken Edgett, staff scientist at Malin Space Science Systems, the San Diego firm that supplied and operates the camera for NASA.

"We're looking for excellent suggestions of areas on Mars that we have not already imaged," Edgett said. "We'll look at every request that comes in."

Information about how to submit requests is posted online at the link below.

Requesters should describe the purpose for the suggested image. Suggestions for target sites already imaged by the camera will be disqualified unless there is a convincing reason for repeating the target.

"Some of the best requests may be places nowhere near any site the Mars Orbiter Camera has imaged before," Edgett said. As with pictures desired by Mars scientists working with the camera every day, new suggestions will need to wait until the Mars Global Surveyor flies directly over the selected target, which could be several months or longer.

The first images from this public suggestion program will probably be released this fall.