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The Red-Hot Planet : Brighter Than It Has Been in Years, Mars Once Again Has Star Quality

September 13, 1988|PAUL CIOTTI | Times Staff Writer

Wonder of wonders: Mars is back and it's nothing short of the hottest thing around, with enthusiasm growing worldwide for manned exploration of the Red Planet--appearing now in your galaxy bigger and brighter than at any time since 1971.

In honor of its current close approach--36 million miles on Sept. 21--amateur astronomical groups, planetary enthusiasts and the Griffith Observatory are featuring special Mars shows and exhibits throughout Southern California.

Recent events included a weekend "star party" hosted by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society in a high mountain valley near Mt. Pinos in Los Padres National Forest.

There, Lewis Ashelford, a garrulous 27-year-old computer programmer from Lawndale, swung his 100-year-old all-brass telescope eastward in the frigid night sky and said: "Let's look at Mr. Mars."

"Actually," Ashelford noted, peering through the eyepiece, "it's a little turbulent tonight."

Although Mars was plainly visible (looking like a small fuzzy peach with a bright-white frozen South Pole), the truth was, the red planet was not as clear that night in the chilled air near Mt. Pinos as it was from Los Angeles' smoggy and overbright night skies.

Smooth and Easy Viewing

That's because the light in the city's skies doesn't interfere with viewing Mars, while the smog does cut down on Mars' excessive brightness; Los Angeles' famous smog-trapping air inversion also keeps the viewing smooth and steady.

Still, concluded Ashelford--who says he often spends hours peering up at the planets from a 10 1/2-foot astronomical dome in his back yard while listening to New Age music on a compact disc and sipping Johannisberg Riesling--"Mr. Mars is great."

Ashelford is not alone this year in his enthusiasm for Mars.

The Griffith Observatory is offering a Mars exhibit, planetarium show and direct viewing of the planet; UCLA is offering an extension course on Mars beginning Sept. 29.

On Oct. 30--in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Orson Welles' classic 1938 Mercury Theater of the Air production on Halloween--National Public Radio will re-broadcast an updated version of "War of the Worlds" with Jason Robards.

In July, the Soviets launched two unmanned Mars probes, expected to reach Mars' orbit in January. That prompted a Time magazine cover, which pointed out that the United States has no plans to send men to Mars or even to do much exploring beyond sending a Mars orbiter to the planet in 1993.

At the May Moscow Summit, the Soviet Union invited the United States to participate in a joint exploration of the planet.

In response, the Planetary Society, which says it is the world's largest space-interest group, prepared a "Mars Declaration." It calls for a joint U.S.-Soviet exploration of Mars as "the next great human adventure," which would serve as "a model and stimulant for mutually advantageous U.S./Soviet cooperation here on Earth."

Mars, says the Pasadena-based society, "is a storehouse of scientific information--important in its own right but also for the light it may cast on the origins of life and on safeguarding the environment of the earth. If Mars once had abundant liquid water, what happened to it? How did a once Earthlike world become so parched, frigid and comparatively airless? Is there something important on Mars that we need to know about our own fragile world?"

The society's declaration this spring urging a Mars exploration won the support of physicists, astronauts, generals and leaders of industry. It also has been endorsed by Johnny Carson, Norman Cousins, Hugh Downs, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Sidney Poitier, Lily Tomlin, Leonard Woodcock, Linus Pauling and Gregory Peck.

For people who dream of visiting other worlds, Mars has long been the planet of choice.

With its old river beds, volcanoes, icecaps and sand storms, Mars in some ways resembles Earth. It also is the only planet besides ours where human beings could conceivably live, says Andrew Fraknoi of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Because the surface of Mars is relatively easy to see in periods of close approach, the Red Planet has been the object of intense scrutiny since ancient times. In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, announced that he had seen an intricate network of straight canali crisscrossing the planet.

By the last decade of the 19th Century, Percival Lowell, the eminent American astronomer, had not only confirmed the observations but offered his opinion that: (1) the "canals" were unmistakable evidence of intelligent design; (2) the Martians were a wise, benign old race; and (3) the planet had a climate not unlike Southern England.

Mars mania then spread across Europe and the United States. H.G. Wells published "War of the Worlds," and Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired generations of school boys with his series of Martian novels. For science fiction and fantasy writers, Mars had become an inexhaustible theme.

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