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Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Catherine Pilachowski
IU Department of Astronomy

Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2003

See Mars through IU's Kirkwood telescope

Red Planet at its closest to Earth

To celebrate the close approach of Mars, the Astronomy Department at Indiana University Bloomington is planning a special free event on Aug. 27, the date of Earth's closest approach to Mars in more than 50,000 years. The public will be able to view Mars through telescopes, including the renovated 12-inch telescope in IU's historic Kirkwood Observatory.

The festivities will begin at 8:30 p.m. CDT in Swain Hall West 119 on East Third Street, featuring talks about Mars by three IU astronomy professors. Martin Burkhead will speak on "Life on Mars?"; Caty Pilachowski on "Exploring Mars Today"; and Richard Durisen on "Why Is Mars So Close?"

Following the talks, weather permitting, IU's Kirkwood Observatory will be open until 1 a.m. The observatory is in the woods behind Bryan Hall on the Bloomington campus just east of the intersection of Fourth Street and Indiana Avenue. Trees around the observatory will block the view of Mars until after about 11 p.m., but then the bright orange planet will be on full display above the trees. Mars will be highest in the southern sky around midnight.

Amateur astronomers from the Stonebelt Stargazers in Bedford will set up their telescopes for public viewing as well if the weather is clear. The Stonebelt Stargazers star party will take place in the IU parking lot between Sixth and Seventh streets, west of Indiana Avenue about two blocks from Kirkwood Observatory, beginning about 9:30 p.m. With no nearby trees blocking the view, Mars should be visible from this site at that time.

Durisen, chair of the IU Astronomy Department, said atmospheric conditions will be the major factor in how well Mars can be seen through a telescope. "Mars is so bright now that if you have a good-quality reflecting telescope with an aperture of eight inches or more, you'll be fine looking at Mars in your back yard. But if you want to talk about Mars with professional and amateur astronomers, come and view it with us," he said.

"Even folks with ordinary binoculars should head out to take a look at Mars. It's visible in the southeast after 10 p.m., and it's the brightest object in the evening sky except for the moon," said Pilachowski, the Daniel Kirkwood Chair in Astronomy at IU.

Durisen cautioned that some telescopes now being advertised for viewing Mars may have misleading information. In particular, he said the amount of a telescope's magnification is not important. "Magnifying a blurry or out-of-focus image is not going to help you see Mars any better," he said. The size of the telescope's aperture and the quality of its optics are much more important.

For more information, contact Durisen at 812-855-6921 or or Pilachowski at 812-855-6913 or