- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

It’s party time for Mars lovers. At 5:51 a.m. this morning, the red planet was 34.65 million miles from us, the closest it’s been in exactly 59,619 years.

Earthlings are celebrating.

There are, literally, hundreds of parties, festivals and sky-watching events scheduled around the planet, celebrating Mars as neighbor, astronomical phenomenon and cultural force.

“We’re ready, though we’ll really have to strain to see Mars. Our building just isn’t high enough,” said a spokesman for the Mars Cafe in San Francisco, where the specialty is a blushing-red Martian martini flavored with cranberry vodka and lime.

Mars as media star remains unchallenged this week as journalists interpreted the phenomenon for curious humankind. None could quite agree about color: Mars has been described as ruddy, rusty, peach, russet, pink, orange, carmine, golden, and just plain red among other things.

“This is a big deal, both scientifically and from a philosophical standpoint. Mars hasn’t been closer to us in the entire history of the human species,” said Bruce Betts of the California-based Planetary Society, founded by the late astronomer Carl Sagan 23 years ago.

The 100,000-member group (https://planetary.org) has proclaimed today “Mars Day,” organized an international “Mars Watch” and tracked 250 events in dozens of countries including the United States, China, India, Denmark, Spain, Jordan and Australia.

Many observers are intrigued simply with the numbers. Mars won’t get this cozy for another 244 years, and it won’t get closer (as in 33.92 million miles) until Jan. 15, 9943.

“Mars has always been an object of intrigue for Earthlings, wandering there in the sky,” Mr. Betts continued. “This moment is a positive thing for us to concentrate on right now. It gets the imagination going.”

Indeed.

Tonight, there are “star parties” in Baltimore and Fort Meyers, Fla., where revelers are encouraged to dress as their favorite science-fiction characters. “Marvelous Mars” will be celebrated in Salem, Ore., while visitors to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia will concoct edible “Martian soil” from undisclosed ingredients.

The Planetary Society itself offered a birthday celebration for sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, who turns 83 today, with greetings from “Star Wars” creator George Lucas and original “Star Trek” actress Nichelle Nichols, who advised Mr. Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451 is a temperature … not nearly as hot as its author.”

Things weren’t quite so convivial in India, however. Astrologers in New Delhi blamed the close proximity of Mars for a terrorist attack in Bombay on Monday that killed over 50 people. Mars, the group told the press, “portends violence, wars, bloodshed and combat.”

Mars as object of scientific affection is at its zenith.

The Hubble Space Telescope has transmitted two spectacular photos of the planet since yesterday.

There are not one but four spacecraft en route to Mars to join the pair of NASA orbiters already in place. The quartet comprises “Spirit” and “Opportunity,” both from the U.S. space agency, “Beagle 2” from the European Space Agency and Japan’s “Nozomi,” which translates as “hope.”

Sky-watchers are assuring those who miss the big Mars moment that the planet will shine brightly through the first week of September. Meanwhile, Earthlings will peer through telescopes and watch “Mars Attacks” on the VCR tonight while at least one scientist ponders the meaning of it all.

“Earth and Mars exchanged material in the early days when life was forming on Earth,” said Mark Adler, a mission manager for NASA’s Mars exploration project.

“Was Mars part of our past? Maybe we are the Martians,” Mr. Adler told the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday.

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