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EXPLORATIONS - September 17, 2003: Mars and Astronomy - 2003-09-16


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VOICE ONE:

This is Phoebe Zimmermann.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Richard Rael with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. The planet Mars came close to Earth in August, closer than it has been in the past sixty-thousand years. This event helped create a huge interest in the science of astronomy.

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VOICE ONE:

People have always watched the beautiful night sky. Many ancient people of the world closely studied the stars for signs from their gods. The Mayan and Aztecs of Central America and Mexico built special tall buildings to observe the stars. The ancient people of Egypt, Greece, Italy, and China also studied the stars. The people who lived on the islands of the Pacific used the stars to find their way across huge areas of ocean.

The people of Earth today still look to the stars for information -- not about ancient gods, but about the universe. Modern technology has made it possible to see objects in space that are thousands of millions of kilometers away.

VOICE TWO:

However, without technology you can see all of the same objects in the night sky that ancient people saw. There is a lot to see and study. It takes a little work and a little knowledge, but it is really very easy.

If you live in the northern part of the world, you can search the night sky to the north and find Polaris the great North Star.

Ancient people watched Polaris for a long time and discovered that it moves very little. It can always be found in the same place in the northern sky. Ancient people used the Polaris star to guide their ships across oceans.

In the southern part of the world you can see in the night sky Alpha and Beta Centauri. They point the way to the beautiful group of stars called the Southern Cross. Ancient people used the Southern Cross to guide their ships.

VOICE ONE:

Ancient people who watched the night sky considered five great mysteries. These mysteries were objects that moved from place to place. Some of these objects seemed to move straight ahead. Others seemed to move in one direction for a while and then move back in the opposite direction. Some could be seen for a few months and then disappeared. But they did not seem to shine like other stars.

Almost every ancient culture knew of these five mysteries. The ancient Greeks called them “planetes.” (PLAN-ee-teess).The word means wanderer -- one who moves from place to place with no home.

On a dark, clear night, away from the lights of a city, you can still find the five wanderers using only your eyes. However they are no longer mysteries. Today we know them as Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and the closest planet to Earth, the red planet, Mars.

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VOICE TWO:

Mars is the fourth planet from the sun and the next planet beyond the Earth. Mars is the only planet whose surface can be seen from Earth. It is about half the size of our planet. The ancient Romans named it after their god of war because of its red color.

The surface of Mars is more like Earth than any other planet. However, because it is further from the sun than Earth, temperatures on Mars are much lower. Most of the time the temperatures are far below freezing. Plants and animals could not live now on Mars. However many scientists believe that such life may have existed long ago.

American space agency exploration vehicles are now on their way to Mars to investigate this idea. They will search for water and evidence that life may have existed at one time. Experts believe that Mars will be the first planet humans will explore.

VOICE ONE:

On August twenty-seventh, Mars had traveled across space to within about fifty-six-million kilometers from Earth. You may think this is still a very great distance and it really is. However, to those who study the night sky this was a very close distance. It is closer than Mars has been for the past sixty-thousand years.

As Mars moved closer to Earth, newspapers, television programs and computer Internet sites had many stories about Mars. NASA supplied beautiful photographs of the planet taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. One of the photographs shows the largest known volcano in our solar system, the huge Olympus Mons. NASA also supplied photos taken by cameras on the surface of Mars.

Experts said anyone with some kind of observing device could get a close look at Mars. All they needed to do was look to the south at anytime between the setting of the sun and dawn. Mars would look closer, be brighter and could be seen much more clearly than ever before. They would even be able to see the polar ice at the bottom of the planet.

VOICE TWO:

Kelly Beatty is the editor of Sky and Telescope Magazine. Sky and Telescope is a magazine for people who study the night sky. Mister Beatty said many people have been buying telescopes to observe Mars. He said even less costly telescopes were selling quickly. He said these telescopes are good for observing Mars because the planet is so bright and easy to find.

Sky and Telescope Magazine has a Web site on the Internet. The magazine lists many astronomy groups called clubs. Club members meet to enjoy the science of astronomy. These clubs began meeting more often as Mars came closer to Earth. Many told newspapers and television stations they would permit anyone to use their telescopes to get a close look at Mars.

VOICE ONE:

Kate Graham works for the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, in the western town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Mizz Graham sells tickets to people who want to ride to the top of Iron Mountain on special cars. Mizz Graham says more than four-hundred-fifty people made the trip at night to observe Mars on August twenty-seventh. Mizz Graham says the group used a large telescope to see the red planet.

People who observed Mars from Iron Mountain were only a few of many thousands who wanted to see the planet. The Southern Cross Astronomical Society of Miami, Florida held a free public viewing of the red planet. Many similar groups around the world did the same. These groups helped millions of people to see Mars for the first time.

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VOICE TWO:

Mars is moving away from the Earth now. It is moving away at about nine-thousand kilometers an hour and gaining speed. By the end of September it will be moving away at a speed of about twenty-six-thousand kilometers an hour. That may sound very fast. However, it is a slow movement of an object in space.

The experts say Mars is getting easier to see. This is because it rises earlier in the night sky and is not so bright. In late August, it did not look like the red planet. It was a very bright white color.

After the moon, it was the brightest object in the night sky. It is still many times brighter than any other object in the night sky. Now, as it moves farther away, it is once again becoming the color red. People who look to the southeast will see the red planet without even trying. After dark it will be very near the moon. By the end of September it will begin to slowly lose the very bright color we see now.

VOICE ONE:

Experts suggest you try to observe the planet with some kind of telescope. It does not need to be costly. Even a cheap one will let you see some detail of the planet’s surface that will disappear by early October.

A small telescope will let you see the darker and lighter red colored areas. You may also see the white color of the bright Martian south pole. The ice there is melting now. It is the middle of the Martian summer. With a good telescope you may even see the high, thin blue clouds of Mars. Or perhaps the yellow areas that are the great Martian deserts covered by sand.

VOICE TWO:

Mars is only one of the many interesting objects that can be seen at night. You can easily learn more about the sky, stars and planets. Most libraries have books that can teach anyone about the science of astronomy. You can also learn a great deal from the Internet. A good place to start is with Sky and Telescope Magazine. The magazine’s address is www.skyandtelescope.com. Sky and Telescope are all one word.

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VOICE ONE:

This program was written by Paul Thompson and produced by Mario Ritter. This is Phoebe Zimmermann.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Richard Rael. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in Special English on the Voice of America.

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