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August, 2003


by Valerie

The top story in the news this month is Mars. On August 27, a day before its opposition, Mars will be closer to Earth than any time in recorded history. The next chance to see it closer will be on August 28, 2287.


While I like to follow astronomy news in a casual way, we don't own a telescope and our viewing of the sky is generally limited to eclipses, comets, and meteor showers. I was already aware that, although being quite bright, Mars would still just look like a large star in the sky. Without mechanical aid, we cannot see any detail of its surface and it doesn't even have the advantage of quick movement to make it more exciting. Our binoculars, which work admirably for viewing the moon during eclipses, are of little use for a distant object like the red planet.

I was therefore surprised when I happened to look out my bathroom window several nights ago and saw, through a reticulated cloudy sky, the full moon and the nearby planet Mars. No stars were visible, but those two celestial bodies glowed like beacons between the clouds, and Mars even appeared pink. It was a breathtaking sight.

Having been a science fiction (as well as factual science) fan from an early age, I have noticed that Mars was often used as a locale for the most imaginative stories. All time favorites like War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury made for delightful reading when I was a teenager. My favorite form within the sci-fi genre is the short story, and one especially cute little tale that stuck in my head is about Mars. I read "The Holes Around Mars" by Bixby in an anthology, although it was most likely first published in a magazine. As with some of the best sci-fi stories, this one includes a good bit of humor. The story is about solving the mystery of a series of holes that the first human explorers discovered when they landed on the planet. Eventually, they find that these are caused by a moon orbiting so low that people have to duck so as not to be in its path. The final pun is a real groaner. Because the other two moons of Mars are called Phobos and Deimos, this lowest orbiting moon is named Bottomos.

Just as it replaced the Moon as the setting for stories, Mars seems to have been superceded in popularity as a science fiction subject by locations much farther from our home planet. This probably goes along with our exploration of space and the development of such spectacular probes and telescopes as the Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo and Hubble. The distance we can really see seems to spur authors to even greater spans for their settings.

Although Mars is no longer a top subject of science fiction stories, it is still alive in the popular mythology of pseudoscience enthusiasts. While, even when I was a kid, it was general knowledge that accounts of Martians, canals, and an ancient civilization were just good storytelling, there are still people willing to believe that our neighbor planet harbors evidence of higher life forms. The "Face of Mars" phenomenon is a good example. Although the image is just a play of light and shadow on rock, the reality has not eroded the imagination of groups dedicated to such things as time travel, flying saucers, alien invaders from space, and their influence on the inhabitants of Earth.

For me, the brightly shining pink dot in our southeastern sky is a welcome reminder of all the wonderfully creative tales that have captured my imagination and provided hours of entertainment over the last 35 years.

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