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Scientists Gearing Up For Close Encounter With Mars - 2003-08-20

On August 27, the Planetary Society and other groups are celebrating "Mars Day." That's when the red planet will be closer to earth that it has been for 60,000 years. The Planetary Society, created in 1980 by the late astronomer Carl Sagan has members in 140 countries and calls itself the largest "space interest group" on earth. Not to be outdone, the Smithsonian Institution held its own Mars Day a bit early.

With Americans' fondness for television game shows, Smithsonian planetary researcher Andrew Johnston decided to hold his own Martian quiz show at the National Air and Space Museum.

"There's a wide range of awareness out there," he said. "Folks that come here to my little demonstration are pretty knowledgeable. I have a list of questions as you've heard before. It has happened that I've gotten to the end of the questions and there are people who know all the answers. So I've had to make up a few tiebreakers. Didn't happen today."

Mr. Johnston and his Smithsonian colleagues are impressed at the huge turnout of visitors to their Mars Day activities. He explains why the planet has sparked people's imagination.

"It's a place that reminds us of home," he said. "That's what drives a lot of our exploration of the solar system and the universe. One of the things that people are interested in finding is signs of liquid water on other planets which may mean the possibility of life. We're a long way from answering those questions about Mars or other planets now. But if you go to Mars and look at the pictures back from the surface of Mars, it looks like a desert from here on earth. The color is a little different, but it reminds people of deserts or earth-like. I think that explains the mystique right there."

Sheri Klug, of Arizona State University, and a member of NASA's Mars Public Engagement Team, adds that Mars is more than just a scientific curiosity.

"Mars had been in our culture for generations," she said. "It's been something that we've been able to look up in the sky and see that red dot. We've wondered about it and wondered about life elsewhere. It's been a fascination for us in movies, books, and mythology. And for the future: Where are we going to next? That's a big question our kids are looking for the next place, the next conquest. The ownership of where they're going to be stepping out is probably going to be the planet Mars."

Organizing the Mars Day activities is Priscilla Strain, who is usually the program manager for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. But for this event, she's wearing a red hat and a new title.

"For Mars Day, I'm the Chief Martian," she said. "There's a renewed public interest in Mars because of all the [spacecraft] activity. And it's closer to the earth right now than it's been in a long time."

Ms. Strain is referring to the recent launch of the American space agency's two "Rover" spacecraft to Mars. As their name implies, the probes will be able to explore areas of Mars after they arrive in January, 2004. Priscilla Strain says another sign of Mars' special place among planetary scientists is the Smithsonian's focus on the planet.

"Most of the scientists here at the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies specialize in Mars," she said. "We do some work on Venus and the moons of Jupiter, [earth's] moon, and Mercury. But our biggest emphasis is on Mars."

Near the entrance of the museum is Julia Makela, a teacher and volunteer at the Smithsonian's Discovery Station, who is showing how meteorites spin on an axis while falling to earth. Ms. Makela provides visitors their best opportunity to almost have a "first-hand" encounter with Mars: to actually touch a planetary-type rock.

"We are showing meteorites and asteroids, looking at how they helped us build reentry craft to bring our astronauts back," she said. "So we have pieces here, like this one, a carbon sample, which is the oldest thing you could ever touch. It's a fun story to tell people; it's 4.5 billion years old. It's amazing how a tiny rock like this can give us so much history."

The special displays about Mars impress visitor Sharon Brewster, a teacher from Santa Monica, California, who has long-followed the journeys of American astronauts.

"I have a long history and love affair with space science and history," she said. "I remember when [astronauts] Alan Shepherd went up and John Glenn. What a thrill! I teach fifth grade, and one of the things we teach is exploration. It's not just old, crusty explorers that I want [students] to know about. I want them to know about all the brave men and women of today that also explore."

Student and possible future astronaut, Becca Arbacher, says the Mars Day activities just add to her interest in the planet.

"I've read about space a lot," she said. "And I've always wanted to go into outer space. So I've read as much as I can, and Mars is always in there somewhere."

Teachers such as Sharon Brewster and students such as Becca Arbacher will have a special opportunity to participate in Mars exploration. Arizona State University and NASA have developed the Mars Student Imaging Project, in which students will analyze actual images sent from the spacecraft on Mars.

Sheri Klug, director of the Mars Student Imaging Project at Arizona State, says the nation-wide program will appeal to students of all ages and abilities.

"We're offering a cutting-edge opportunity to involve students in real-time research," she said. "It's done so you don't have to be a planetary expert to facilitate this. It lets the students become the scientists, the researchers. They become the knowledge-gatherers and discoverers using images they took of Mars in real time."

Students interested in the Mars Student Imaging Program may get more information at the website, For everyone else, hope for a clear night, get a telescope, and use this once-in-60,000-year opportunity to study Mars.