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Kinda friendly orange planet

July 1, 1993

The year was 1959, I think. The place was Rice Lake, Wisconsin’s, outdoor theater. The movie playing was The Angry Red Planet. I was all alone; my uncles went either to the concession stand or to some girl’s ’57 Chevy. I was scared feces-less. The movie image of the strange larva-headed Martian looking into the human spaceship window had convinced me that Mars was no place for human people or kids.

Forty-some years later, Mars’ image has changed drastically. No one with at least one foot in reality believes tall Martians are walking around preparing to look into human spaceship windows when they arrive on Mars. Mars is very cold and very dry. Because the Mars atmosphere is so thin, ultraviolet radiation from the sun would kill any living thing on the planet surface that is not properly shielded. At times, even the magnetic radiation on Mars is deadly. Yet, man has been sending his most advanced probes to Mars for decades. NASA is not satisfied with machine probes; it wants to send astronauts to Mars within 20 years.

The last 10 years of Mars research has yielded the most information, led by the highly successful Mars Global Surveyor. The hundreds of thousands of digital photos sent by the Mars Global Surveyor to Earth have painted a fairly clear picture of the Mars surface. A clear surface image of Mars gives insight into its near surface and subterranean workings. Photos of craterless plains and volcano mountain peaks higher than any in the solar system tell you that Mars may still be geologically active. Other photos showing features like Earth glaciers indicate recent—that is, very recent, water flowage on Mars.

Some think M.G.S. may catch surface water flow in the act. Combine the photos with hyper-sensitive physics detection technology, and you end up with the answer “yes” to the old question of, is there water and/or ice below Mars’ surface? It’s known that most of the water near Mars’ surface is tied up in ice, and the heat that melts it from time to time is probably geothermal heat from vulcanism. However, a meteor impact can produce more than enough heat, as does solar heat due to seasonal changes.

Is there microbial life in water beneath Mars’ surface? The odds are looking better. Microbial life exists on Earth with most of its needs met by geothermal heat, so why couldn’t life exist under similar conditions on Mars? The underworld is the key to Mars, for if it holds glaciers, lava flows and babbling brooks, then it may hold life. Go outside just after dark and look for a small orange dot low in the east by the south sky; that orange dot is Mars. On Aug. 27, Mars with all its intrigue and all its mysteries, solved and unsolved, will be closer to Earth than it’s been for thousands of years. Aug. 27 will find Mars as the second-brightest object in the sky, second only to the moon. Its brightness will be a magnitude of -2.9, and the planet’s size will cover 25.11 arc seconds. Even a modest telescope will make Mars appear as big as the moon to the naked eye. By 12:30, Mars will reach its highest point in the sky. But remember, Mars just doesn’t leap to this close position to Earth; it’s a gradual thing with lurches and perturbations mixed in. You know that old celestial, astronomical, geological mumbo jumbo.

Maybe 20 years down the road, an outdoor theater will rise from the ashes of a deserted strip mall. All that’s needed is a developer, the scent of money, and a stupid populace.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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