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Mars Approach Rekindles Interest in Stargazing - 2003-08-27

People the world over are excitedly scanning the skies for the closest visit by the planet Mars in 600 centuries. This major celestial event has rekindled interest in stargazing in the United States and elsewhere.

With its rusty-red color, Mars has fascinated man since he first gazed into the heavens. Named for the ancient Roman and Greek gods of war, Mars is the most Earth-like of all the planets in the solar system. Its surface is pockmarked with volcanoes and canyons that indicate a historic presence of water, and scientists have long speculated about the presence of some form of Martian life.

Wednesday evening, Mars will rise in the southeastern sky shortly after sunset, and be the brightest object in the heavens. Kelly Beatty, executive editor of the nation's premier Astronomy magazine Sky and Telescope says what makes this event special is that Mars, among all the other planets does have a special mystique.

"Of all the planets that we can see by eye, Mars has always set itself apart," says Mr. Beatty. "If you look at it in the sky, it's got this kind of creamy or peachy color. Mars is red because its rocks are rusty and this has been known for thousands of years. And all along we've recognized that here in Mars we have a place that is the planet most like our own Earth. So consequently we feel a kind of connection to it."

Although Mars has been well studied, landed upon and photographed by at least half a dozen spacecraft, this visit is still causing excitement. Last Saturday more than one-thousand people gathered in a Virginia State Park outside Washington's light pollution to view the planet in amateur astronomer's telescopes.

In Los Angeles, California, Edwin Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory on Mount Hollywood has been overwhelmed with the public's response. Although the major observatory is closed for a multi-million dollar renovation, the crowds at the satellite facility increased from the usual 300 a night to 10,000 people last weekend. "Even in Los Angeles and Hollywood we recognize that the real "stars" are the stars," he said. "And they do attract people's attention and affection." As he prepares for even larger crowds Wednesday, Mr. Krupp acknowledges that this excitement actually goes far beyond an interest in Mars, or even our solar system. It touches a more primal aspect of our being.

"So, it's not just an idle, intellectual curiosity on our part to examine the sky. This is in fact something that induces us to think more clearly and more sharply on many different fronts. And that's what exploration and discovery are really, eventually all about," says Mr. Krupp. "This is in fact what it means to be human, to look up; to wonder; to explore and to get to think about the big question; the big ponderable and imponderable things that we see around us. That's the really great thing about this." For those who are not able to view Mars this week or soon, as it passes Earth at a mere 55,763,000 kilometers they will have a long wait. The planet is not due to be this close again for another 284 years.