On Wednesday, Aug. 27— at 5:51 a.m. Eastern
Daylight Time, to be exact—the centers of Earth and Mars will
be a mere 34,646,418 miles apart, the closest the two planets have
been in more than 59,000 years.
To celebrate this celestial getting-to-know-you (though, for those
willing to wait, the planets will have an even more intimate encounter
in August 2287) and to offer the Emory community a chance to get
a better view of it, the physics department will hold a special
event in the Math & Science Center planetarium on Tuesday, Aug.
26, beginning at 10 p.m. and lasting until 1 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Richard Williamon, senior lecturer in physics and director of the
observatory and planetarium, said the department has wired a video
feed from its 24-inch rooftop Cassegrain telescope to the planetarium,
enabling live pictures of the Red Planet to be displayed on the
planetarium dome. The closed-circuit TV feed is useful since the
small size and enclosed nature of the rooftop observatory precludes
Williamon from taking groups up to view Mars through the telescope’s
“The space, and the body heat, really becomes a problem,”
Williamon said of the small domed room in which the telescope resides.
“If you have a bunch of people in there, the heat goes straight
up and the atmosphere right over the dome kind of wiggles around
a little bit, like looking down a hot road in the summertime.”
Another potential party foul is the weather; earlier this summer
the physics department organized a similar public viewing for the
May 15 lunar eclipse, but the event was hampered by cloud cover
and heavy rain. That won’t happen with the Mars approach.
“We test drove the [closed-circuit TV feed] system extensively
Monday night [Aug. 18], which was clear, and it works marvelously
well,” Williamon said. “We were able to capture some
images, which we burned to DVD, and we’re ready rain or shine
on the 26th. If it’s cloudy, you’ll get reruns of Monday
As other celestial phenomena occur, Williamon said the department
will hold viewing parties—“There will be times when
we have a Jupiter night or a Saturn night,” he said—to
take advantage of its new toys: the rooftop telescope and planetarium.
Also, to coincide with the closing of the Carlos Museum’s
Ramesses exhibit in September, Williamon said the planetarium will
be holding “Egypt shows.”
“There are a lot of Egyptian ties to astronomy; we owe our
solar calendar to the Egyptians,” he said. “And when
people refer to the ‘dog days of summer,’ that has deep
roots in Egyptian folklore; it turns out that when Sirius, the ‘dog
star,’ which they interpreted as the goddess Isis, rose with
the sun, they felt that the dog star combined its heat with the
sun to give us the dog days of summer.”
For more information on the Mars viewing, contact Kate Bennett,
physics program coordinator, at 404-727-7862.