Earth enjoying a Mars close encounter

Like cogs and gears on a colossal clock, Earth and Mars are synchronizing their orbits, bringing them closer to each other than any time in recorded history.

The alignment early Wednesday brought droves of earthlings out of their homes overnight to marvel at the glowing reddish point in the sky, for now the brightest nighttime object except the moon.

Mars, five times closer now than six months ago, is now 34.6 million miles away, its closest brush with Earth in about 60,000 years, according to calculations by international astronomers.

The closest approach officially took place minutes before 6 a.m. EDT. The nearest terrestrial place to Mars at that time was Tahiti, according to astronomers.

"Mars coming this close is an excellent opportunity for amateur astronomers to see Mars," International Mars Society President Robert Zubrin said. "With a good amateur telescope right now, you can easily see the ice cap on the Martian pole."

Mars will remain a stunning nighttime attraction for weeks.

Most sky watchers can see the planet, presently in the constellation Aquarius, in the southeastern sky soon after sunset, high overhead during the midnight hours and in the southwestern sky before sunrise.

Backyard telescopes may coax features out of the reddish, orange blur, including the legendary dark channels or "canals," which inspired scientists of past centuries to predict advanced Martian civilizations.

The rare configuration of 2003 has stoked renewed, albeit not as fanciful, interest in Mars, which on average cruises 50 million miles farther from the sun than Earth does.

About every 26 months, the two planets pass relatively close to one another, during periods now known as opposition.

What makes this one noteworthy is that Mars, which follows an extremely elliptical or egg-shaped path, is currently at it closest point to the sun during its orbit.

Those two conditions, along with a few obscure celestial variables, have produced an astronomical chance of a lifetime, or several lifetimes actually.

Mars won't pass closer to Earth until 2287, according to astronomers.

Besides awing the curious, the alignment has motivated numerous governments to dispatch missions to the red planet.

Taking advantage of the shorter trip distance, two U.S. and two European probes set off earlier this year, all to arrive at the end of the year.

"Mars fever has caught, not only for amateur astronomers, who are getting their best look at the planet ever and that we'll ever have in our life, but also for professionals, as you know, with the [NASA] Mars Rovers and other spacecraft that are en route," said David Eicher, editor of Astronomy magazine.

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