Grandmasters threatened by Mars opposition

8/27/2003 – If you switch on your television set you will know: today the planet Mars approached Earth closer than it has done during the last 60,000 years. This beautiful red jewel in the night sky is full of mystery. On the one hand, as John Nunn explains, a Martian invasion may be imminent. On the other we have startling new pictures of the famed "Face on Mars". More

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The Mars Opposition

Tonight the planet Mars will be closer to earth than at any time during the last 60,000 years. It will be the brightest object in the night sky, a beautiful red jewel in the firmament. It's apparent size has increased from about 5 seconds of an arc in diameter to about 25 seconds!

On Wednesday, August 27 at 10:51 GMT the two planets Earth and Mars were separated by 55,758,006 kilometers (34,646,418 miles). This has not happened since the Neanderthals shared this planet with early humans, who as you know were lucky enough to find the Obelisk and learn how to use the thigh bones of animals properly. The next closest approach will be in 2287 – we will bring you live coverage at the time.

A Hubble picture of Mars taken eleven hours before it's closest approach. Source: NASA, J. Bell (Cornell U.) and M. Wolff (SSI).

In the parlance of astronomers Mars is currently in "opposition", a term they have obviously borrowed (without giving due credit) from the chess world. The close approach of the two planets happens regularly when both are on the same side of the Sun. On this occasion Earth is about as far from the Sun as it ever gets, and Mars as close as it ever gets (the orbits of the two planets are not quite circular).

Our resident scientist GM John Nunn informs us:

The close approach of Mars suggests that this would be a good time for the Martians to invade Earth. The last time they did so, in June 1902, they caused considerable devastation. I have a personal interest in this because the first Martian cylinder plunged into the sandpits on Horsell Common, just down the road from where I currently live. Apparently they did not use retro-rockets or parachutes, and it has always been a mystery how the relatively fragile Martians survived the deceleration of impact. Moving out from this first landing, they advanced through Ottershaw (where GM Murray Chandler currently owns a house) and devastated Weybridge and Shepperton. Armed with a heat-ray and a deadly poison gas, it seemed that nothing could stop them. Eventually, as everyone now knows, their invasion was defeated when they caught a nasty cold and died.

The event is commemorated in various ways locally (see, for example, the Woking Borough web site) and has inspired various films and radio broadcasts (see, for example, the War of the Worlds movie, in which the invasion was switched to America). Curiously, although the Horsell area has changed greatly in the past century, Horsell Common and its sandpits are still much the same. I am somewhat concerned that the Martians might aim for the same spot again and am keeping a careful watch for any meteorites leaving a strange greenish trail. If one falls, I intend to call Tony Blair or George W. Bush – they’ll know what to do.

The Face on Mars

There is another important aspect to this close approach of Mars. Everybody knows that strange rock formations have been photographed on the surface of the planet, the most famous being the "Face on Mars". It was obtained in 1976 by the Viking Orbiter 1. In the Cydonia region of Mars it photographed a region of buttes and mesas along the escarpment that separates heavily cratered highlands to the south from low lying, relatively crater-free, lowland plains to the north.

One of the images showed a face-like hill, which led many people to argue, mostly in the lay literature, that the hill was artificially shaped. The "Face on Mars" web site provides interested persons with both the raw Viking images, transformed to GIF format, and a brief tutorial (with examples) of image processing techniques applied to create "better looking" images.

Due to the near approach new images have been obtained which should delight amateur conspiracy theorists all over the world. They show the Cydonia region and the "face" in unprecedented clarity.

Above is the latest Hubble image taken on August 27 2003 at 10:34 GMT, seventeen minutes before the true opposition of Mars.

This is an enlargement of the above image. An incredible geological formation, that looks eerily familiar. We must come to the conclusion that GMs Nunn and Chandler are in genuine danger, since the Martians are obviously fans of a different chess player.


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