California's cutting-edge telescopes prepare for Mars-gazing
LOS ANGELES (AFP) Aug 27, 2003
California's observatories and planetariums on Wednesday were preparing telescopes for hundreds of astronomy buffs seeking to zoom in on Mars as it makes its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years.

Neanderthals wandered the Earth the last time Mars came this close, hovering at only 55.76 million kilometers (36.650 million miles) away.

This time around, Californians will have cutting edge technology within reach should they want a closer peep at Mars thorough telescopes at the Griffith Observatory, in Los Angeles, or at the University of California at Fullerton, in Orange County.

"We will have lots of telescopes from 9:00 o'clock until 1:00 o'clock in the morning not only tonight but all September and October," said astronomer John Mosley from Griffith Observatory .

Mosley and his colleagues said it will take another 284 years before Mars comes this close to Earth again.

"We are expecting thousands of people to join our celebration," Mosley said using a term astronomers are fond of to describe celestial events.

Since the dawn of time, Mars has played a central role in human legends and nightmares, and as our closest planet, has been a fount for fantasies about extraterrestrial life.

So pervasive is the red planet in our perception of life beyond Earth that extraterrestrials in general are known as Martians.

The striking geographical similarity between Earth and Mars -- Greeks call it Ares for its reddish color, with its craters, valleys and volcanos is what leads many to believe it really is inhabited.

"It's that chance that it might harbor life that captures people's imagination," said the director of the Griffith Observatory, Ed Krupp.

But Mosley said the cold temperatures on Mars dash all such hopes.

"If there was life it must have beeen in the past," he said. "It may have been the warmest planet but now it is very cold, and the lack of atmosphere ... It is impossible, even for bacteria to survive," said Mosley.

Speculation about Martians began in 1877, during the red planet's last close approach when its elliptic orbit brought it 65 million kilometersmillion miles) from Earth.

Astronomers then trained their telescopes on Mars and discovered its moons Fobos and Deimos. Italian astronomer Giovanni Virgilio Schiapparelli is credited with triggering our present-day fantasy about Martians, although unwillingly.

The director of Milan's Brera Observatory discovered a network of perfectly straight lines linking the darker areas of Mars and called them "canali," Italian for channels, which was wrongly translated to "canals" in English, implying a man-made feature rather than naturally occurring ground faults.

In the confusion, many scientists reasoned that if Mars had artificial canals somebody must have built them.

More than a century later, scientists now know better, but they still harbor hope of finding water on Mars. The presence of water could include some primitive form of life and would be extremely valuable to any future human colony on the red planet.

In June, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched two spacecrafts with robots to explore and examine Martian rocks and geology.

If all goes well, the robots will land in January 2004.

Mosley believes that if Mars harbors any water at all, it lies deep beneath its rocky surface, which is for now out of reach of our robots.

But that does not bother Mars fans and science fiction lovers skeptical of scientific reasoning.

On his 83rd birthday party Saturday at the Planetary Society, Ray Bradbury, renown author of "The Martian Chronicles," made this prediction:

"One night, 100 years from now, a youngster will stay up late reading 'The Martian Chronicles' with a flashlight under his blanket -- on the Red Planet.

"That's the dream I have and that's the reason I'm here."