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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue: September 8, 2003
Volume 39, Number 4

Mars captures observers' imagination

By Dan Ware

No one expected to see flying saucers or little green men, but on a recent August evening, planet Mars was the focus at the UNM Observatory.

Astronomy lovers catch a glimpse of “the red planet” at UNM's Observatory.

More than 1,000 people came out after dark and stood in line to catch a glimpse of “the red planet” making its closest pass by Earth in 60,000 years at approximately 34 and a half million miles.

Despite intermittent cloud cover that periodically interrupted viewing, stargazers had the chance to see Mars through several telescopes, many of them brought by local amateur astronomers. While distinct features of the planet were not visible, even from the observatory’s main telescope, most viewers could make out the white polar icecaps, rusty-colored surface terrain and the dull green color of the planet’s bedrock.

Due in part to renewed efforts to study Mars by the scientific community, interest has peaked in recent years with a steady stream of documentaries and major motion pictures.

Mars has been highly studied because of its proximity to Earth and a chance the planet may have supported life at one time, according to UNM Physics and Astronomy Professor Stephen Gregory, who gave brief lectures and answered questions while people waited in line to view the planet.

“The surface of Mars is incredibly dry, but it seems there could be a substantial amount of water beneath the surface,” Gregory said. “It’s a good bet that if there’s water, there’s life.”

Gregory adds that while Earth’s nearest neighbor, Venus, is too hot to support any kind of manned expedition, the same is not true for Mars.

“It is not beyond the stretch of people’s imagination to see people walking around Mars in space suits,” Gregory said.

Gregory hopes that events like the Mars viewing at the observatory serve to spark interest in astronomy in future generations.

“We think astronomy adds to the spiritual value of science by trying to understand the concepts of the Big Bang Theory and the expansion of the universe,” Gregory said.

Long lines at the Mars viewing didn’t faze crowds as they waited to get a brief glimpse through the observatory’s telescope.

“It’s really neat that we’re able to do this,” Elaine Mendoza, an Albuquerque resident, said. “I’m glad my kids have a chance to see this, because we won’t be able to see Mars this close again.”
In fact, the next time Mars will pass the Earth this close will be in 2287, some 284 years from now.

The UNM Observatory is open every Friday evening from 8 to 10 p.m., while the university is in session, weather permitting. Hours will change to 7 to 9 p.m. when daylight-saving time ends in October.