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Mars: Up close and personal with the red planet

July 16, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

When most people think of the Imperial Valley during the summer, they focus on the sweltering heat that makes it less than desirable to go outdoors.

But there's another element of the Valley during the summer, one that might be missed if people did not take time to go outside after dark.

The night sky over the Valley is a glimmering show filled with brilliant stars that can be seen clearly, unaffected by the clutter and light of large cities.

This summer offers an even better show than summers past.

After dark, look toward the southern skies and you'll see one point of light that stands out among the rest, a red beacon that this summer is the brightest object in the night sky.

It's Mars, and its orbit around the sun has brought it closer to Earth than it's been in about 10 years.


"It's only about 40 million miles away," said Roy Bernardi, astronomy teacher at Imperial Valley College.

"In astronomical terms, you are touching," Bernardi said in speaking about the distance between the Earth and its closest neighboring planet.

On a recent day, Bernardi met with a reporter and photographer to talk about Mars and just how close it is to Earth.

Few celestial bodies generate as much excitement as Mars, particularly as scientists continue their search for signs of past microorganism life there and work toward a future in which mankind will walk on the Martian surface.

Bernardi said there is frozen water on Mars and if scientists can determine how to access the water, grow plant life and with the plant life create oxygen and an ozone layer, it might be possible to colonize Mars.

For now, mankind can only look toward the skies with high-powered telescopes and monitor the red planet with probes and robotics devices sent to explore the planet's surface.

We also can raise questions about Mars, such as the recent mystery as to whether a rock formation on the planet surface is really a Martian face carved into the landscape.

While it may look like a face, recent images of the planet surface show the formation is a natural creation highlighted by shadows.

Mysteries aside, Mars will continue to be the brightest point in the night sky for about another two months, Bernardi said. It can easily be seen as it makes its way west across the night sky each night.

Bernardi said Earth and Mars are closer than usual based on their orbits, which have them on the same side of the sun.

While gazing up at Mars through a 6-inch telescope, Bernardi talked about Martian facts that make the red planet such a wonder.

He said Mars has a volcano that is 16 miles high while the largest volcano on Earth is six miles high.

Bernardi spoke of a canyon on Mars that makes the Grand Canyon seem little more than a crevice. He said Mars has a canyon that would stretch from the West Coast to the East Coast, is four miles deep and in some areas 400 miles across.

The Grand Canyon is a one mile deep and about 15 miles across.

Mars, which formed 4.5 billion years ago, is divided into halves, each different in appearance. The southern highlands are heavily cratered from meteor impacts while the northern lowlands are smooth.

The red planet is smaller than Earth. It's diameter is about 53 percent of the Earth's diameter. While Earth has 365 days in a year, Mars has 687 days in a year.

Bernardi said of Mars, "This is the first planet we will step foot on. It's going to take awhile to get there. It's not necessarily going to happen in our lifetime."

Mars has been visited by a number of spacecraft from Earth, and the first orbit was when Mariner 4 arrived at the planet in 1965.

Bernardi picked up a flashlight and shined its beam at other points of interest in the night sky.

In the county, away from the lights of the city, the constellations can be seen with ease.

The Big Dipper, in the western sky, is one such constellation. For the novice sky-gazer, the Big Dipper can be a guide to other stars and other constellations.

Two pointer stars in the cup of the Big Dipper point north on a direct line with the North Star. The pointer stars also point south toward constellation Leo.

In the northern sky are three bright stars that form a triangle. The stars are Deneb, Altair and Vega.

If you look carefully, it is possible to see a ghostly formation pass through the triangle. That formation is an arm of the Milky Way, our galaxy. What appears to be a gaseous form is actually an endless number of stars that fill that arm of the galaxy.

The arm stretches from the center of the galaxy in the south toward the north. While it may be possible to see the arm of the galaxy from a dark back yard away from lights, in remote areas away from light the galaxy arm is stands out against the dark of night clearly.

Most of what we see with the naked eye in the night sky is within our own galaxy. Still, there are some points in space that can be seen without the help of a telescope.

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