Mars Sweeps 'Close,' Delighting Onlookers

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Mars (search) glowed as bright as the moon Wednesday when the red planet moved closer to the Earth than it has in the past 60,000 years and clouds that had threatened to spoil the view cleared, to the delight of thousands of onlookers.

Mars usually averages about 140 million miles away from Earth, but on Wednesday its orbit brought it about 34.6 million miles away, reaching the closest point at 5:46 a.m. EDT. The planet will not be so close to Earth again until 2287.

The southern hemisphere was favored for viewing because Mars was much higher in the sky there than in the north. In the United States or in Europe, Mars will not get 20 or 30 degrees above the horizon while in Argentina or Australia it will be at 70 degrees, nearly directly over the heads of viewers.

"Australia is as good as anywhere, but Africa would be very good as well," said Nick Lomb, Sydney Observatory's (search) curator of astronomy.

South of the equator, Mars's high position in sky means less atmosphere to obscure the view, particularly through telescopes, he said.

Cloudy weather had threatened to spoil the view but the sky cleared over Sydney and thousands of people took advantage of the unexpected clear conditions over Sydney to seek a glimpse of the planet in the eastern sky. The view got better overnight Wednesday as Mars rose in the horizon.