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Look Up and Marvel

August 23, 2003

You may not have this down in your Day-Timer yet, but very early Wednesday morning, Earth and Mars will be closer than they've been in 59,619 years. That 34.64-million-mile gap isn't close by Rand McNally standards, but these two giant orbs rotating through space at 18 miles per second won't be this close again until 2287. So take a good look at the southeastern sky these nights.

Sometime soon, possibly late this coming week, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, the third space observatory launched by the U.S., will rise from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to traipse along behind Earth, reading light that human eyes can't discern as it arrives after unknown years of travel at 186,000 miles per second, portaging tales of genesis from distant star construction zones.

Even with manned American flight from this wee planet suspended because of the Columbia tragedy, the exciting, often incomprehensible, remote-control exploration of space continues invisibly all over the sky above.

Much of it is directed from a sprawling array of crowded, unassuming buildings on a leafy, 177-acre complex near Pasadena's Rose Bowl. There, more than 5,000 Jet Propulsion Laboratory workers direct 17 robots and satellites peeking into distant corners of the galaxy, peering down at Earth and performing other exploratory wonders. Orders, data and photos traveling at light speed take long minutes, even hours, to zip back and forth.

JPL's two newest Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, assembled in a dust-free Pasadena room by workers in bunny-like blue uniforms, have traveled 110 million and 64.4 million miles, respectively, since their summer launchings. Opportunity has 219 million more miles to go and Spirit 192 million more miles before they meet Mars near year's end.

If all goes as planned, precisely timed parachutes will deploy, retro-rockets will fire and 10-foot balloons will inflate around each craft like giant bubble-wrap to cushion landing. Each 384-pound craft will bounce about Mars for 10 minutes, covering maybe a mile before coming to rest, deflating and beginning its remote research on the possibility of life, even microbe-sized, on the Red Planet. All televised back to Earth the same day.

Maybe some youngsters with the perspective of, say, nine whole years see all this as normal. But for millions of older folk, such far-reaching inquiries are deliciously exciting and virtually beyond belief. Today, JPL workers alongside the 210 Freeway continue assembling a 2004 satellite that from space will read certain winds on Earth before they form clouds portending serious storms, thus improving weather forecasts and perhaps someday allowing storm prevention.

You needn't set your alarm for 2:51 a.m. Pacific time Wednesday to mark Mars' proximity. But as we fret over the Angel/Dodger playoff chances and other earthly minutiae, do set your mind sometime soon to pause for a moment of awe at nonworldly events being overlooked all around.

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