My favorite Martian

Earth invades Mars! Prof leads students on intellectual expedition to the red planet

By Greg Scheiderer

At the end of August, Mars, that source of great fascination for Earthlings, was closer to our planet than it has ever been in recorded history, and it will remain brighter than usual in the night sky until January.

“Everyone is looking at this thing,” laughed Bernard Bates, a physics instructor at Puget Sound. Bates explained that the close-up view astronomers call an apparition occurred because Earth and Mars were closest to each other at the same time Mars was its closest to the sun.

“This is a spectacular apparition, because in the last 15,000 to 60,000 years we’ve never had one where Mars was as close to the sun at roughly the same time as it was as close to the Earth,” Bates said.

Late last month, the reddish point of light in our night sky was brighter than Jupiter and all the stars, outshone only by the Moon.

The apparition brought Earth and Mars to within about 34.5 million miles of each other. That sounds like a long way—there are lots of big numbers in astronomy—but in truth it’s literally a stone’s throw. Several meteorites, rocks from Mars, have been found on Earth, and in 1996 scientists found microscopic anomalies in one of them that strongly suggest primitive life existed on Mars some 3.6 billion years ago.

Bates will teach a new course on Mars exploration this year that will cover not just the science and history of space exploration, but the politics, economics, and pop culture aspects as well. The course is part of Puget Sound’s innovative Science in Context program, an interdisciplinary approach to looking at science.

While science fiction usually depicts Mars invading Earth, this year it’s the other way around: Two U.S. spacecraft already are orbiting Mars, and a Japanese orbiter, two U.S. landers, and a European orbiter and lander are on the way.

“This is an assault on the planet that is going to change everything. We will literally rewrite the textbooks,” Bates said. “The Mars that we know now is totally different than the Mars we thought we knew 10 years ago. Once the landers are there, it’s going to change again. The landers are really smart robots; they’re going to do geology and travel around and do all sorts of wonderful things—if they work.”

Bates said the apparition is an especially exciting time for amateur astronomers. While the professional work has “moved upstairs” to probes and the Hubble Space Telescope, hobbyists are gearing up for the view of a lifetime.

“The equipment amateur astronomers have now allows them to take pictures that are better than anything that was taken before spacecraft,” Bates said. “Their dedication to the hobby is amazing. You don’t even want to call it a hobby, because many pour their heart and soul into it, and they’re not getting paid to do it.”

Still, Bates said that’s how the pros are born.

“All professional astronomers started out as kids with telescopes, and one of the first things that everyone looks at is Mars,” he said. “Everyone who has some time on a large telescope is going to sneak a look at Mars just because that was the whole reason they got into the game to begin with.”

So why does the red planet hold such fascination for us? Bates says it’s part science, part fiction.

“Unlike any other planet in the solar system, we can see to the surface of Mars; it’s really there, in a sense. We’re not looking at clouds, we’re looking at the surface that has things we recognize: dust storms, ice caps, great deserts. Mars looks like the Southwest,” he said. When early observers saw what appeared to be canals they thought that meant civilization existed on the planet.

The fiction started with such writers as H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs spinning tales about Mars.

“Every 8 year old in the country read these books.” Bates said the idea of Martians became a part of our culture, and each generation gets immersed in the fantasy.

“Part of us really wants there to be life on Mars,” Bates said. “It’s the last frontier there is for people who want to explore frontiers. I think everyone has a little bit of that in them. It must be the way people felt about exploring the Antarctic or Africa.”

So, the notion of life on Mars persists, “even though we’ve had almost 50 years now of proof that there probably aren’t any real Martians larger than microbes,” Bates said.

Still, Bates says he’ll wait for the Martian landers to dig around and come up with more facts before he completely gives up on the idea of life on Mars.

In the meantime, starry-eyed folks here on terra firma will crane their necks, gaze at that bright red dot of light in the sky, and wonder.