831[tales From The Area Code]
Red Planet Dreams: Looking for Mars in all the wrong places.
Thursday, September 4, 2003
The stars at night are pretty. The Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, or MIRA, is our Peninsula''s own place to look at the stars through high-tech telescopes and have local experts on hand to explain celestial phenomena--the perfect spot, it would seem, from which to look at Mars.
Last Thursday night, Mars was the closest to Earth it''s been in about 60,000 years. MIRA rose to the occasion by hosting a star party the next evening in honor of the event. Eager to learn more about the dynamics of planetary movements, I headed out to the astronomical bash to mingle with other stargazers and maybe see Mars for myself through one of MIRA''s high-powered telescopes.
The event, however, was disappointing. Arriving at MIRA''s Weaver Student Observatory in Marina, I observed about 50 people and a lot of cookies, but precious little planetary activity. The evening''s viewing of the Red Planet was obstructed by fog and light pollution. They didn''t even have the big scope out--what would be the point, when there was nothing to see? (I later found out they held a second "Mars party" Saturday night, for MIRA supporters, and that night was clear as a bell--just my luck.)
Fortunately, MIRA''s director Dr. Bruce Weaver had been kind enough to answer some of my questions ahead of time by e-mail, and I had the MIRA press release describing the star party and the significance of Mars''s proximity. Imagine my chagrin, then, when I read with horror the information given by that press release, which stated: "On Thursday, August 28, Mars will be at its nearest approach to Earth in about 100,000 years."
Noticing that the numbers didn''t match other information I had, I checked the NASA website and discovered a difference of forty thousand years between what MIRA was reporting and what NASA said. Since CNN and several other major news organizations were quoting NASA''s stats, I figured they must be correct.
Turning back to Weaver''s e-mail, I learned that although we Earthlings waited 60,000 years for last week''s close-up viewing, in just another 284 years Mars will be even closer to our planet than it is now, by about 70,000 km.
My date book doesn''t extend out that far, however, and it was clear that I wasn''t going to see anything Friday night from MIRA''s fogged-in Marina station. So, with two friends in tow, I headed to Fremont Peak Sunday to try to salvage my story.
After stopping off for some fantastic Mexican food at Jardine''s in San Juan Bautista, we headed up the mountain in search of other star and planet gazers trying to get a peek at the fourth planet on what turned out to be a lovely, clear night.
I''d been up Fremont Peak before; when I was a child growing up in Hollister my parents loved dragging me up the mountain and making me look at nature. I''ve never forgiven them for that.
The peak looked about the same as it did in my youth, but being that this time I was behind the wheel (and no longer 10 years old) the drive was much shorter and less car sickness-inducing.
Reaching the top of Fremont Peak, we found ourselves alone. No other gazers in sight. I got out of the car to stretch my back and happened to look up at the sky, which was full of more stars than I''d ever seen with my naked eye.
And right up to the left, looking like a large orange star, was Mars. The three of us lay down on the cement and stared up, finding constellations and marveling at our nearest astral neighbor, closer than it''ll be for almost 300 years.
None of us know much about astronomy, and we had no one there to explain what we were looking at, but seeing Mars in its shiny glory, I believe we all got a sense of wonder at the beautiful dance going on in the night sky.
MIRA''s Oliver Observing Station on Chews Ridge in the Santa Lucia Mountains--one of the best places in the continental US for optical astronomy--is open to the public once a month on Sunday afternoons; the next date is Sept. 7 from 2:30-4pm. Call 883-1000 for details.