For people interested in seeing Mars up close, Aug. 26 and 27 present an opportunity rarer than once in a lifetime. On those dates, the Red Planet will be the closest it has been to Earth in 50,000 to 70,000 years, depending on the computer model.
The enthusiasm, stoked by Saturday's scheduled launch of a second land rover to Mars, has sparked telescope sales at shops such as Photon Instruments in Mesa. Elsewhere in the Valley and the state, stores and observatories are gearing up for what is called the Mars opposition.
"If you don't see it in August, you won't see it again that close," said Scottsdale resident Warren Kutok, who owns Photon Instruments with his wife, Judy.
Kutok comes with credentials: He has built and restored observatories for NASA and schools nationwide. He opened the store at 122 E. Main St. 10 years ago.
Telescope sales are steady, and among the best sellers are higher-end models — ones that cost $3,000 to $5,000, he said. "It appears that these people are not affected with what's happening with the economy."
Astronomy enthusiasts are awaiting the Mars opposition, and the event is also bringing new people into the field, he said. "Everyone seems to be getting ready," he said.
Sam Herchak of Mesa already owns several telescopes, but stopped at Photon on Tuesday to buy a pair of wide view binoculars to look at the Milky Way. He will use an eight-inch telescope — the size of a telescope refers to the diameter of its mirror — to view Mars.
Kutok said the timing of the opposition isn't great as it will be in monsoon season in Arizona and during dust storms on Mars.
"The Martians seem to know when we'll be looking at them, and know how to keep nosey Earthlings from seeing much," he said, laughing.
Sales at Mr. Telescope in Phoenix have yet to take off, but owner Jack Johnston said he has been fielding more inquiries. He expects sales of telescopes and accessories to start picking up next month. He plans to head up north, where it's higher and cooler, to view Mars, he said.
At Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, group viewing sessions of Mars are booked solid, but public viewings are planned for September.
Public programs supervisor Russell Tweed said the public will be able to see Mars through a historic 1896 telescope Percival Lowell used to study Mars. The viewings are set for September to take advantage of the planet's higher position.
Lowell's research expanded what was known about surface details of Mars, but also included some things — like sightings of canals — that were not substantiated, Tweed said.
Kutok carries telescopes ranging from a basic model at $275 to $15,000, many equipped with a global positioning system, technology that frees viewers from having to track things by hand. That makes it easy to see things, even in cities, where light pollution would hamper viewing through manual models.
Kutok tries his best to match the telescope with the customer. Bigger and more expensive isn't necessarily better.
"The best size is whatever telescope you use," Kutok said. And the best place, is your back yard, he said.