Sunday, January 24, 2010

To other worlds

Mars is high in the sky in the evening, the only planet to grace the midnight sky. On January 29, it reaches opposition; that is, Mars is opposite the Sun in Earth's sky. That means we are as close to Mars as we'll get this time around (although not as close as at an average opposition). The Red Planet has a magnitude of -1.3, which makes it just a bit brighter than the brightest star in the sky (Sirius). As we glide past Mars in our respective orbits, the other planet appears briefly to move backwards against the background stars, making a little loop-the-loop in Cancer.

So there it sits, 62 million miles away, tantalizingly near and yet so far.

There have been over 40 missions directed at Mars, more or less evenly divided between the U. S. and the Soviet Union (now Russia), with one unsuccessful Japanese mission and a couple from Europe (a flyby and an orbiter). The Soviets had a long streak of bad luck; a dozen missions failed before they finally landed a craft on Mars. The U.S. has had three rover missions, including spunky Spirit and Opportunity, and is planning the best rover mission yet, the Mars Science Laboratory. NASA is also planning to mesh its Mars exploration program with that of the European Space Agency, with the long-range goal of sending a robotic mission to the surface of Mars that will return some Mars dust to earth.

But it doesn't appear likely that humans will go to Mars any time soon. Back when I was a young fellow, Wernher von Braun campaigned vigorously for a manned mission to Mars, in articles in Collier's magazine. He imagined it might happen in his lifetime. He died in 1977, by which time Viking 1 and 2 had landed on the Red Planet, but humans had got no farther than the Moon.

I won't live to see humans on Mars. My children won't either. My grandchildren? Well, maybe. It will happen, eventually. The Chinese may pull it off. In the meantime, I walk the beach at night with that bright beacon in Cancer, dreaming the dreams of the 1950s when V2 rockets and German space scientists made shaking hands with little green men on the little red planet seem a realistic possibility.