Mad for Mars: Stargazers Flock for a View

The Red Planet Gets Closer to Earth Than Ever -- a Mere 34,646,418 Miles Away

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2003; Page C01

You may already know that 41 minutes before sunrise this morning, Mars drifted closer to Earth than it ever has in human history.

A mere 34,646,418 miles separated the planets. The last flyby of this proximity occurred nearly 60,000 years ago, when perhaps a dreamy Neanderthal paused in the thankless grind of natural selection to behold the heavens.

The 21st-century response has been a publicity bonanza for the fourth planet from the sun. Around 9:30 or 10 p.m. is when you hear people talk about checking the southeastern sky for something wild. Mars has been in the Earth's neighborhood for weeks and will stay for weeks more. Parents are keeping their children up past bedtime to see it. Hordes are descending on their local observatories or lining up at backyard telescopes. The University of Maryland Observatory drew 300 people Thursday and an additional 600 Saturday. Kids went home with glow-in-the-dark flying disks stamped "Mars 2003." News organizations are treating the great Perihelic Opposition of Mars as right up there with the Big Bang, the moon landing and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Tabloids are running cover shots of the Red Planet the size of a human head.

It's enough to make you rush outside and gaze expectantly skyward and, Yes! There it is! . . . A very bright star. Or is it a distant jet? No, it's a sparkling amber pinprick of a Christmas twinkle in the sky.

Is this what all the fuss is about? You're yearning to see the Red Planet rise like a mandarin orange moon or a bloodshot second sun. Maybe a telescope will help.

On Thursday at the University of Maryland Observatory, people waited more than 30 minutes in the dark for a turn. They climbed a stepladder to reach the eyepiece, spent a few moments absorbing the spectacle, then stepped down:

"It was maybe a little underwhelming," said Nicole Taylor, a graduate student at Maryland.

"I thought it would be a little more red than it is," said Art Driedger, a chemist from Silver Spring who brought his four children.

"I expected to see details of the planet surface," said John Grunwell, a librarian from Hyattsville.

Through a high-quality observatory telescope, Mars resembles . . . a glowing disk about the size of a pea. There's the faintest blush of yellow-orange, but many people just see white. The polar ice cap looks like a dab of frosting. The varying surface soils look like dark smudges in the middle.

Caught up in the Martian romance of it all, shall you compare this vision to a shimmering pearl of textured iridescence? Or does it remind you of a bathroom light fixture with shadowy silhouettes of dead flies in the white globe?

Would it be rude to ask of this particular celestial phenomenon: So what?

There is an answer to that question, but not the one you expect.

It turns out the closest in human history is not that close. In fact, it's not much closer than Mars has come several times in recent memory. Mars today is only about 5 percent closer than it came in 1988. Most people looking through a telescope wouldn't be able to tell the difference. In 1971 and 1924, it came even closer than in 1988. Every 15 to 17 years the elliptical orbits of the two planets bring them quite close -- the fancy name is perihelic opposition; today's is just more so -- and every two years the planets can come pretty close.

"Every 15 years Mars looks approximately this bright," said Steven Dick, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

"Technically, it's closer, but practically -- ehhhh," said Elizabeth Warner, director of the University of Maryland Observatory. "The average person wouldn't notice a difference between two years ago and today. Some people think they're never going to see Mars again in their lifetime. That's not true."

The closest in human history doesn't make much difference to scientists, either.

"It doesn't change the kind of science we do, and that difference in distance doesn't give us a huge advantage over previous oppositions," says Ray Villard, spokesman for the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which runs the science program for the Hubble Space Telescope.

The public has been spoiled by excellent views of the Red Planet, pockmarks and all, from the Hubble and NASA's unmanned missions to Mars. Aware of that competition, astronomers are trying to lower public expectations for the closest-ever experience even as they attempt to seize this teachable moment.

Thursday night at the observatory, Warner kept repeating to the line of people, "It's not going to look like those Hubble photographs. . . . You'll see a little disk in here. That is Mars."

She thinks she knows how Mars mania got started: "The media doesn't understand something, so they latch on to it."

But she wasn't complaining about the all-ages stampede to the observatory. "These people have never seen it," she said, waving at the crowd. Sure, they could come back during another decent Martian opposition and see pretty much the same thing, but they won't. It takes mania to get people interested these days.

And is that such a bad thing?

A few years ago, Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a pretty song about a comet, "Halley Came to Jackson":

As its tail stretched out like a stardust streak
The papers wrote about it every day for a week
They wondered where it's going and where it's been
When Halley came to Jackson in 1910

Halley and Mars are like modern art. Hand people a piece of paper with some spilled paint on it and they'll say, "My child could do that." Tell them it's a masterpiece by Jackson Pollock and they'll look harder and with wonder.

Halley is just a luminous smudge in the sky until everybody marvels at the smudge's fabulous encore every 76 years. Tell people that the amber twinkle is Mars closer than it has ever been in human history, and the twinkle suddenly pulses with significance.

The planet-gazers at the Maryland Observatory said the experience was worth coming out for, even those who confessed that the visuals were underwhelming. Taylor and Ben Irwin, another graduate student, said they appreciated sharing a cosmic experience with other people. Irwin said what he remembers about Halley's Comet in 1986 is his parents waking him up to see it -- not what the comet actually looked like.

Grunwell, the librarian who had expected a more detailed image, said, "I like the sense of knowing I'm on a planet, in a solar system. It gives me some context about what we are and where we are."

"I just got goose bumps," said Pat Ramsay, a chief financial officer from Bethesda. The shimmering pearl was better than the detailed Hubble photos because "this is like looking at it with our own two eyes. . . . I almost feel like I'm there, that I was transported there."

So, for now, people are looking harder at shimmers in the sky. After the blinding light of hype clears, they're left with something less brilliant than their expectations, perhaps, but something still amazing because they have developed a subtler appreciation.

What if subtler appreciation were transferable to everyday miracles? The monthly sky show of the full moon is more spectacular than Mars on its best day in human history.

But before long, there will be another celestial phenomenon to catch everybody's attention. There always is. Next June it will be the transit of Venus. That's when Venus passes like a speck in front of the sun. It hasn't happened since 1882. The public was thrilled. John Philip Sousa wrote the "Transit of Venus March."

Mars mania has yet to fade, and already astronomers are preparing for Venus vibrations.

"It's going to be a big deal," said Dick, of the Naval Observatory.

Even if it's subtle.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company