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August 2003
Mars meets Earth!
Mars as seen by the West Yorkshire Astronomical Society
Mars and Earth are converging for a close encounter and, while the distance between them might be still too far to take that giant step for mankind, West Yorkshire and the red planet will be the nearest they have been to each other for nearly 60,000 years.
Space: Mars

National Astronomy

The Bradford Robotic Telescope

NASA: Mars
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Although Mars is very cold, with a thin and unbreathable atmosphere, it is the only planet in the solar system that is any way like Earth. It has rocky deserts with sand dunes but its thin and unbreathable atmosphere suggest it's not the place to spend your holidays just yet.

On August 27th astronomers and observatories across the county are inviting everyone to take a look at our neighbour. Ken Willoughby from West Yorkshire Astronomical Society says: "The last earthlings to see Mars this close were the Neanderthals. Do not miss this opportunity to view the mysterious red planet! On August 27th, the date of closest approach, the two worlds will be 56 million kilometres apart. That's a long way by Earth standards, but only a short distance on the scale of the solar system.

Space probe to Mars
2003 is a good time to go to Mars

"NASA, the European Space Agency and Japan are all sending spacecraft to Mars this year. It's a good time to go. Mars will brighten until it 'blazes forth against the dark background of space with a splendor that outshines Sirius and rivals the giant Jupiter himself.' Astronomer Percival Lowell, who famously mapped the canals of Mars, wrote those words to describe the planet during a similar close encounter in the 19th century."

We went in search of an expert to explain what will be happening. Dr John Baruch, Head of the Department of Internet, Cybernetics and Virtual Systems at Bradford University is an astronomer who is very well-placed to help us as the University has a robotic telescope in Tenerife.

Dr Baruch explains: "The Earth and Mars are two of the nine planets that go round the sun and Mars is a next-door neighbour but Earth and Mars both go round in ellipses, slightly squashed circles, and so the nearest point doesn't always coincide because the ellipses aren't always lined up when they rotate around the sun and, because they are ellipses when the Earth goes round, Mars goes slower than the Earth and Earth's got further round but the ellipse also rotates and so every year we have a close point and that close point varies through the centuries and we happen to be at the closest of closest points. It's only a few miles different to what it was last year and the year before. It's a long time since we were so close but we're talking about a few thousand kilometeres."

Astronomy has a long history in West Yorkshire. A blue plaque outside Bradford College commemorates Bradford-born Nobel Prize winner Sir Edward Appleton who was the first to discover the ionisation layers high up in the atmosphere. Today students at Bradford University can study astronomy using telescopes across the world via the internet and who knows what they might see one day.

Dr Baruch thinks there might well be life on Mars: "I hope so. It will be really exciting if there is, and my colleagues have put a lot of effort into this and it would really be good if our British probe finds life there. It lands at Christmas. I think it will only be bugs, little bacteria-type of life. If we want to look for something more than this in the solar system I think you've got to look at the moons of Jupiter and particularly one called Europa which has large oceans on it covered by thin layers of ice and we hope that we'll find something more exciting then bacteria in those oceans."


The West Yorkshire Astronomical Society Observatory is open during National Astronomy Week (Monday August 25th to Friday August 29th 2003) from 6pm until late. Each evening kicks off with a chance to see the sun as you've never seen it before, there is a slide show and from 8.30pm to late there will be opportunities to study the night sky through the Observatory's 18 inch Reflector. Telescopes will be set up outside for people with disabilities.

West Yorkshire Astronomical Society's Observatory is on Carleton Road, Pontefract next to Carleton Grange Club.




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