Astronomers ready to view Mars |

Astronomers ready to view Mars

Susan Wood, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Good morning. Today has presented itself with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Mars wandered closer to Earth at 2:51 a.m. than it has at any other time in 60,000 years.

How’s that for odds, astronomy buffs?

Scientists have figured Mars won’t be this close again until Aug. 28, 2287.

“It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you don’t want to miss out on,” said John Lightholder, a Meyers man whose hobby began at age 14 with his first Sears telescope.

These days he makes telescope mirrors for a living, under the business name Lightholder Optics.

He’s been watching the progress of the Red Planet at 34.6 million miles away through his 22-inch mirror. The 96-pound, 15-foot-tall telescope in his back yard has picked up much definition of the planet, including a vivid view of the polar ice cap.

“This is the only planet in the solar system where you can see the surface,” he said. “And this year we’re fortunate we haven’t had those sand storms.”

The Earth passes Mars every 25 months. When the planet was a mere 42 million miles away two years ago, sand storms kicked up enough dust to cause a hazy view.

Like many enthusiasts of astronomical science, Lightholder will open up his home this weekend to a few friends to check out the detailed view.

The Fleischmann Planetarium and Astronomical Society of Nevada will host a viewing at 9 p.m. at the Mapes Hotel at First and Virginia streets in Reno.

Mars can be seen with the naked eye and much better with binoculars, rising low in the southeast after sunset.

And those who follow the science know that anyone with an 8-inch telescope will be able to see the south polar cap — which may reveal any secrets of life on the planet.

That’s part of the job for one distinguished researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“We have geomorphic evidence there was water. And the water is driving the research,” said Wendy Calvin, one of 50 people including two women on the NASA Mars Rover Science Team.

The team will send two NASA rovers to the planet next January. Calvin, a freelance scientist, and her comrades will study the 5-foot-wide vehicles from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The rovers are expected to cover an area equivalent to about five football fields.

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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