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Mars’ approach spurs CfA ‘Fever’:

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Closest distance in recorded history marked with public events

This view of Mars was assembled from daily global images obtained in May. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Mars has always fascinated humankind.

One of the brightest objects in the night sky, the planet has prompted deep thinking like Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and flights of fancy like H.G. Wells’ famous novel “War of the Worlds.”

Gods have been named after it, writers have imagined civilizations on it, and even today, after landers and orbiters have visited the planet, scientists still harbor hopes of finding life there.

And it’s getting closer.

Mars isn’t invading, but it is set next week to reach its closest approach to the Earth in 60,000 years, an event that has sparked numerous news stories, events, and celebrations around the world. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is getting in on the act with three days of public events next week for “Mars Fever Week.”

The free programs highlight different aspects of Mars’ lore, answering questions such as how the planet’s environment went from mild to harsh, detailing the history of human exploration of the planet, and dedicating a night – when Mars makes its closest approach – to observing.

“This closest approach of Mars is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience this very real world with your own eyes,” said CfA Director of Public Affairs David Aguilar. “This will be a week of everything you ever wanted to know about Mars and 10 other things too.”

The closest approach, on Aug. 27, will bring Mars to within about 34 million miles of Earth.

“We just happen to be swinging past [Mars] when it happens to be at its closest approach to the sun,” said Jonathan McDowell, a CfA astrophysicist and expert on the world’s space programs.

McDowell, who will present the Aug. 28 program, “Exploring Mars,” said he thinks it is Mars’ similarity to Earth that has inspired humankind’s fantasies about the planet.

“The romance is that this is the nearest other world you could imagine living on. You could imagine standing under the rose pink sky and looking at Earth,” McDowell said. “It’s certainly a much more plausible place to establish a colony than Venus, which has crushing atmospheric pressure and sulfuric acid rains. It’s really not a good vacation spot.”

Though Mars’ close approach is historic, improved telescopes and the increased use of spacecraft to explore the planet have reduced the event’s scientific significance, McDowell said. Still, he added, instruments on or around the planet have limited lifetimes and capabilities, so the opposition is still an opportunity to gather scientific information.

The event is, perhaps, more a cultural event than a scientific one. McDowell said there is a lot of excitement surrounding the close approach. Mars-watchers looking through Earth-based telescopes might be able to make out surface features normally invisible, such as the solar system’s largest volcano, the 78,000-foot-high Olympus Mons, and, Valles Marineris, a canyon long enough to span the entire United States.

During the course of August, Mars will get bigger and brighter as it gets closer, doubling in brightness until it outshines any planet other than Venus. Mars’ Southern Hemisphere is tipped toward us, exposing the South Polar Cap.

Mars’ close approach comes as a fleet of four spacecraft head out to join the probes already there. Determining which craft will make it there is a matter of speculation, however, as interplanetary misfortune seems to strike Mars probes with relative frequency. Only 14 of 37 attempts to reach the red planet have been successful, according to McDowell. In his talk at the CfA’s Phillips Auditorium on the 28th, McDowell said he’ll discuss the cosmic misfortune that seems to stalk missions to Mars.

As for himself, McDowell doesn’t believe in cosmic ghouls or curses left by ancient civilizations. Rather, he attributes the misfortunes to difficulties of travel in interplanetary space.

“It’s partly coincidence and partly that it’s not an easy thing to do,” McDowell said. “It is rocket science.”

CfA offers ‘Mars Fever Week’ events

The Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is offering a viewing of Mars at its Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Mass., this Sunday (Aug. 24). For one night only, a drawing will give 40 lucky sky-watchers – weather permitting – a chance to view Mars through the 61-inch-diameter Wyeth reflector (the largest optical telescope east of the Mississippi). A 16-inch reflector and other telescopes will be available to all other guests. CfA will offer tours of the observatory from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., followed by public viewing from 8:30 to 10 p.m. The rain date is Aug. 25. The Oak Ridge Observatory is at 40 Pinnacle Road.

Other events, all of which will take at CfA’s Phillips Auditorium in Cambridge at 8 p.m., include:

“Mars: Then and Now” – a lecture by Samuel Kounaves of Tufts University, a co-investigator on the 2001 Mars Surveyor Program Lander. On Tuesday (Aug. 26), Kounaves will discuss how Mars evolved from a mild environment to harsh desolation – and whether primitive life might have developed and survived there.

On Wednesday (Aug. 27) “Observing the Face of Mars” will celebrate the closest approach of Mars in recorded history. A drawing will be held with the winner taking home a framed color lithograph of Percival Lowell’s “Mars,” drawn in 1894.

“Exploring Mars” will review the history of Mars exploration, from the Mariner flybys of the 1960s to the flotilla of spacecraft currently on their way to our neighboring world. Jonathan McDowell, an expert in the world’s space programs, will lead the discussion on Thursday (Aug. 28.) A full-scale model of the 1997 Sojourner rover, on loan from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will be available for viewing.

Check out the CfA Web site for more information at