Distant neighbor Mars edges closer, captures attention and imaginations
WASHINGTON (AFP) Aug 28, 2003
On Wednesday, at precisely 9:51 and 14 seconds GMT, the Earth and Mars narrowed the distance between them to its smallest in 59,618 years: a mere 34.647 million miles (55.758 million kilometers).

Star-gazers around the world -- better equipped optically but probably no less dazzled than the Neanderthals of the time of the last close-encounter -- looked skyward as the red planet's orbit swung into stride with the Earth's.

Optical shops reported a run on telescopes and binoculars, but the US orbiting Hubble telescope had the undisputed best view, said Jim Bell of NASA's Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, outside Washington.

Among earth-bound observers, those of French Polynesia in the South Pacific were almost directly beneath Mars at the crucial moment, said NASA, and thus the closest humans to the red planet.

"The entire summer has been a good time to observe Mars, both because of their proximity, and because they are in a period of opposition, that is, both on the same side of the sun," said Patrick Rocher of the Paris Observatory.

"Mars has been in the sky the entire night."

Astrologers and soothsayers predicted natural disasters, even hinting that Europe's recent murderous heat wave could have been one.

"It will also increase the chances of war, terrorism and accidents," Thailand's leading astrologer Pinyo Pongcharoen told the Bangkok Daily News.

Hong Kong's Feng Shui master and astrologer Chung King-Kwong warned "there will be more natural disasters", pointing to the freak heat wave that left thousands dead in Europe this month.

It will cast a spell of misfortune until September 20, Indian astrologer R.L. Kanthan told the Times of India, stating two deadly car bombs in Bombay that killed 52 this week were the work of Mars, not Islamic militants.

Portuguese astrologer Rui Lorga put a different spin on events.

"Men will be sexually more active," he told the A Capital paper. "But obviously women will also feel the influence of Mars, however in a more subtle way."

Astronomers -- professional and amateur alike -- began eyeing the heavens early Wednesday for a good look, although clouds in parts of the Asia-Pacific zone, where night fell first, shrouded the red-yellow-orange globe from view.

"You don't have to know about astronomy, you just look to the southeast, you can't miss it. It's bright yellow orange," said Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky and Telescope magazine who said it was impossible to tell how many events had been organised.

The Westchester Amateur Astronomers club in New York state held its "Mars Party" on Wednesday.

The Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles expected thousands to attend a series of Mars parties when it throws open its telescopes to the public from Wednesday until the end of September, according to Griffith astronomer John Mosley.

Griffith director Ed Krupp said "it's certainly a red-letter day for the Red Planet. It's that chance that it might harbour life that captures people's imagination."

"Mars has not lost its charm... It is truly a planet that makes men dream," Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack, Italy's foremost star-gazer based in Trieste, told Corriere della Sera.

"People's interest in Mars is reaching a peak as some people are increasingly speculating on the existence of life" on Earth's neighbor planet, said astronomer Noritaka Tokimasa at Nishi-Harima Observatory in Hyogo in western Japan.

Nishi-Harima is one of 300 observatories across Japan -- along with hundreds more around the globe -- where thousands of astronomy buffs fled urban glare to take part in "Mars Observation" shows.

In Germany, the number of "UFO sightings" soared, fed by pervasive fantasies that Mars -- with its craters, valleys and volcanoes not unlike those on Earth -- harbors life.

Werner Walter at Germany's CENAP center that follows unidentified flying object reports said he was "hearing the most outrageous claims", one from a retired couple who said they were followed for two hours by an orange UFO.

Mars' fiery color might easily fool the uninformed "into believing they are witnessing the arrival of a UFO," he said.

In Hungary the Urania planetarium in Budapest was the place to be for Mars watching, with people queuing since Tuesday night for a glimpse, said planetarium keeper Imre Kurti.

Big crowds also queued at the Museum of the Cosmos in Tenerife, in Spain's Canary Islands, one of the largest European observatories.

Lisbon's Observatory of Astronomy meanwhile said it had had worried calls from people who feared the two planets might collide.

The idea of life on Mars was inadvertently fostered in 1877 when an Italian astronomer's description of dark lines on mars was mistranslated into "canals" implying a man-made feature that holds water, the source of life.

But, Mosley said, Mars' cold temperatures and lack of atmosphere make "it impossible, even for bacteria to survive."

Foremost in the minds of scientists watching Mars Wednesday was the hope of finding water on the Red Planet -- the critical ingredient for dreams of making Mars mankind's first colony in space.

No fewer than four new probes -- two US, one European and one Japanese -- are now hurtling towards Mars to try answer that question among others. The frontrunner, Europe's Mars Express orbiter and its Beagle-2 lander, built in Leicester, England, is scheduled to arrive December 25.