Earthlings to have close encounter with Mars

Perhaps the Martians - if they exist - will not take advantage of the significance of 27 August to pay a visit to Earth. But it will be their best opportunity for a while.

Later this month, the Red Planet will be 36 million miles from Earth, its closest since about 57,000BC, when man was still living in caves.

Mars is the brightest object in the night, apart from the Moon, and sits low in the sky on the southern horizon. Anyone wanting to find the orange-red planet in the sky in the next few days should look out after about 10pm, when it rises above the horizon. Since Mars rises a few minutes earlier each night, by the 27th it will be coming up just before 9pm.

With interest in Mars likely to grow as the planet becomes brighter earlier in the evening over the next few weeks, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has decreed 23-30 August National Astronomy Week.

Amateurs interested in observing Mars will need a telescope of at least six inches to see details on the surface.

Jacqueline Mitton of the RAS said: "It's an absolutely stunning and spectacular sight in the sky, but not many people have seen it yet, because you have to be out late. People will be curious because they are fascinated by Mars: it's the planet most like ours, it's the one that figures most in science fiction and, one day, mankind is likely to stand on its surface."

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