Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 25, 2002
Starry, starry night beckons
Big red Mars stars in historical sky happening August 27
By SUSANNE ELSTON
My husband and I are star gazers. Late at night, when the kids are in bed, we lie in the middle of our driveway and look up at the night sky. We are blessed with a few acres of property far enough away from the city lights so we can actually see the stars. We are also blessed with an abundance of trees. Our long driveway is the only place where their magnificent canopies don't block our view of the night sky.
This wonderful ritual began 20 years ago, shortly after we were married. The evening before our weekly garbage pick up, we'd take the trash out to the end of the road. As we'd turn back toward the house, Brian would announce that we couldn't go back inside until we'd spotted a satellite.
Being a city kid, I didn't even know you could see a satellite with the naked eye. I'd strain my head backwards, searching the heavens for movement, when Brian would say, "Look, there's one!" By the time I located my own satellite, Brian would have spotted a half-a-dozen or more gleaming points of light and my neck would be aching from craning my head backward. Eventually, I just gave up and lay down right in the middle of the driveway.
If it's a particularly warm, clear night, we'll sometimes grab an old blanket or sleeping bag and gaze up at the heavens for hours, feeling at once both very small and very much a part of something infinite. We hunt the night sky for constellations, satellites, high-flying jets and planets. We've seen shooting stars, meteorite showers and even a comet.
When Canada's first astronaut in space, Dr. Mark Garneau, took his maiden voyage on Challenger, we got up early in the morning to wave at him as the shuttle flew over our house. One summer we were entertained for several nights in a row by an unusually vivid showing of the northern lights. Rather than simply dancing on the horizon, the coloured flares reached up to the apex of the sky, where they joined together and formed a giant cathedral of light. It was breathtaking.
Occasionally while were lying there, Brian will casually mention that there is absolutely nothing between us and the stars above us. "You have to admit that we're awfully brave lying out here," he'll say. "If the law of gravity were repealed right now we'd simply float out into the heavens."
The thought is both frightening and reassuring. During the course of our busy lives, it's easy to lose our sense of connection to the universe. On nights when the stars are shining above, all it takes is a few minutes of gentle observation to reconnect to something much greater than our individual selves. We are, after all, star stuff. Our bodies contain the same essential elements that comprise the stars in the heavens above.
Last month, as we took our ritual walk out the driveway, Mars looked particularly brilliant. It sat low on the southern horizon, its red orb visible to the naked eye. I later discovered that this month, Earth and Mars will come closer together than they have been in recorded history. Astronomers estimate that the next time Mars may come this close is in 2287.
On Aug. 27, the two planets will come within 34,649,589 miles (56,300,000 kms) of each other. Next to the moon, Mars will become the brightest object in the night sky. With a slight 75-power magnification, Mars will look as large as the full moon does to the naked eye.
When the two planets are closest, Mars will rise at nightfall and reach its highest point in the sky at 12:30 a.m.
Be a witness to history. Mark Aug. 27 on your calendar, find a clear spot, unencumbered by artificial lights or trees and watch the show.
Recommended websites:NASA has a great website about the approach of Mars. Visit science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2003/18jun_approachingmars.htm.
For the latest on what's new in the night sky, visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) website at planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov.
To find out more about JPL's Mars Exploration Rovers, participate in a live webcast on Aug. 21 and Aug. 22. Go to jpl.nasa.gov and click on Events. The Planet Finder Club is a network of individuals and educators who are interested in the search for extrasolar planets. Free membership includes news alerts, project updates and opportunities for direct involvement. To join, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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