13-Feb-88 01:53 MST
Sb: APn 02/03 1227 Mars Mania
Copyright, 1988. The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
By RICHARD COLE Associated Press Writer MIAMI (AP) — This year, Mars makes its closest approach to Earth in a generation, and astronomers say the red planet’s appearance in the night sky may be the astronomical event of 1988.
As if to demonstrate the heavens have a sense of humor, the height of the show comes in September, just shy of the 50th anniversary of Orson Welles’ 1938
“War of the Worlds” broadcast that panicked the nation with fictional reports of invaders from Mars.
“I see 1988 as a great Martian adventure,” said Jack Horkheimer, the aptly named “Star Hustler” of the Public Broadcasting System and executive director of Miami’s Space Transit Planetarium. “I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
When Mars is at its closest on Sept. 21 — just over 36 million miles away — it will rival Jupiter as the brightest object in the sky after the Moon and Venus.
“It won’t be this close again until 2003,” says Horkheimer. “And there are a lot of kids out there who have never seen it this bright.”
Unlike the comets Halley and Kohoutek, Mars will not disappoint viewers, because its brightness is more predictable and the planet will be easily visible from almost everywhere.
He expects a spate of UFO sightings to accompany Mars’ visit as people unaccustomed to the unblinking reddish-orange light in the night sky mistake it for more exotic extraterrestrial visitors.
Like planetarium directors around the nation, Horkheimer is preparing a series of Mars shows he promises will “knock your socks off.”
One involves a snazzy computerized simulation of a flight through the planet’s gigantic 2,500-mile-long version of the Grand Canyon. Another centers around an 18-mile-high mountain — three times higher than Mount Everest — capped by a crater the size of Georgia.
He also is bringing to the planetarium a new telescope nicknamed “Awesome Orson” in honor of the late Welles’ broadcast and girth.
Although Earth passes Mars every two years, it is only every 15 to 17 years that the orbits of the third and fourth planets bring them as close together as in 1988. The year began with Earth and Mars separated by 200 million miles. The close encounter comes four years before a scheduled Mars probe by the Soviet Union.
The Soviet plan to have the probes bring back Martian soil, and perhaps, Horkheimer said, settle the most intriguing question about Earth’s neighbor — whether life once existed on the now cold and arid desert planet. U.S. Mars lander in the 1970s tried to answer that question, but the chemical soil test results beamed back to Earth were inconclusive.
“I really hope that they find fossilized signs of life,” he said. “We know that there was water on Mars.”
Horkheimer said he also hopes the Soviet probes will spur the United States to revive its own space program, with a manned landing on Mars.
“We could be on Mars easily within a decade or so,” he said. “The technology already exists. What is missing is the money.” And the funds will be available only when the public once again supports spending the billions of dollars in funding a Martian landing would require.
If the political situation allows it, a joint U.S.-Soviet mission to Mars could ease the financial burden on both countries, he said.
It also could promote peace between the two rivals — an ironic benefit from a planet named after the Roman god of war.