Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 13, 2003

One more attempt at failure

By David Shapiro

I'm preparing myself for another of life's celestial disappointments.

I've been receiving e-mails touting a once-in-an-eon event on Aug. 27, when Mars will come closer to Earth than it has been since Neanderthal times. At less than 35 million miles away, some e-mails say, the red planet will appear nearly as big as the moon.

That's an exaggeration. As the two planets converge, Mars is already growing far more prominent in the eastern sky than its usual appearance as a bright star with a reddish tinge.

But the red planet won't look as big as the moon, which is only 238,000 miles from Earth.

Mars passes Earth closely every two years. Because of its elliptical orbit around the sun, its nearest point ranges from 35 million miles to 63 million miles. Mars hasn't been nearly this close since 1924 and won't approach 35 million miles again until 2287.

The United States, Japan and the European Space Agency are all exploiting this proximity to launch space probes to Mars.

When Mars passed within 43 million miles of Earth in 2001, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took the most detailed photos of the red planet ever, showing icy white clouds and orange dust storms swirling over the colorful Martian terrain.

By Aug. 27, when Mars comes to within 35 million miles, amateur astronomers will be able to see some of these details with their backyard telescopes.

It's all academic to me. All I know is that on Aug. 27, I'll be sitting at the darkest spot I can find, craning my head skyward, and I'll see ... nothing.

I have a magnetic attraction to celestial displays, but am incredibly inept at finding them.

My string of bad luck started in 1986 with Halley's Comet, which marks lifetimes by coming around every 76 years. Its dim appearance that year was a disappointment, but you could see it if you got out of the city lights. Everybody but me, anyway.

We were living in Washington, D.C., and I bundled up my young family one chilly night and headed for the Virginia countryside. The dark sky was full of stars as bright as I've ever seen.

But nothing I could identify as a comet. Shamelessly, I pointed to the brightest star and told my kids that was Halley's Comet — and they should remember how awesome it was when they show it to their great-grandchildren in 2062.

They'll only remember that, in my guilt, I let them order breakfast from the adult menu at Denny's on the way home.

Then there was Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, which, unlike Halley's, was spectacularly bright and visible. Except to me.

For days, I climbed to the roof of the newspaper building in the pre-dawn hours to look for the comet. I knew it was there because newspaper photographers took pictures of it from that very spot at that very hour.

But I was blind to Hale-Bopp, even when one of the photographers stood next to me and pointed to it.

More recently, my wife and I made an early-morning outing to see a Leonid meteor shower that was supposed to be especially breathtaking. We saw nothing from the Windward side, so we headed toward the clear skies of West O'ahu, where again we were disappointed.

By the time we found our way to Sandy Beach, where the good viewing was, the show was over and hundreds of cars were leaving.

I'll never see Mars unless I hitch a ride on one of those space probes they're launching.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.