August 25, 2003

Mars attacks! Or, rather, approaches, Aug. 26

Michael Terrazas

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 eyepiece.

“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 night.”

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.