Opinion: Planetary show eases earthly ills

By PHIL BERARDELLI, UPI Deputy Science and Technology Editor  |  May 4, 2002 at 5:40 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 4 (UPI) -- Once in a while, the night skies put on displays that can dazzle our eyes, lift our spirits, fuel our imaginations and, for a few moments anyway, cause us to forget our earthly concerns.

Sunday and Monday evening after sunset, five of our planetary neighbors will do just that. Venus, Saturn and Mars will pop out of the darkening twilight as a near-perfect triangle. The other two "naked-eye" planets -- tiny Mercury and mighty Jupiter -- will bracket the trio.

If the sky is clear and if you are located in the middle northern hemisphere, the sight will be impossible to miss.

Watch for Venus, practically blazing with reflected light, dominating the sky to the west-northwest and flanked by Mars and Saturn, much dimmer but still distinctive.

Mercury also appears, nearer the northwestern horizon. Brightly shining Jupiter, closer to Earth now than at any time in nearly 250 years, looks down on its lesser neighbors from higher up in the western sky.

On May 14, a crescent Moon will join the formation, passing near Venus, and on June 3, Venus and Jupiter will provide a "finale," appearing in close tandem.

For as long as human beings have looked up at the night sky, these five objects, along with the Sun and Moon, have carried a range of human emotions -- wonder, awe and even fear. The strange wanderers that moved night to night among the fixed background of stars -- the name planet comes from the Greek word meaning "wanderer" -- mesmerized ancient peoples. They named the objects and gave them godly attributes based on their appearances or behaviors.

Ancient Babylonians believed the movement and alignment of the planets affected many facets of everyday life. They created a practice based on planetary movement that holds millions of followers to this day -- astrology.

The Romans called Mercury their god of commerce, travel and thievery, while the Greeks named the object Hermes, the messenger. This made sense, because Mercury seemed to zip across the night skies.

Venus, unforgettable as the beautiful evening and morning star, took on feminine characteristics to the ancients and became the Roman goddess of love, as well as the Greeks' Aphrodite and the Babylonians' Ishtar.

Least loved by the ancients, Mars' noticeable red color imbued it with a warlike cachet for centuries. Jupiter became beloved, however. To both the Romans and the Greeks, who named it Zeus, Jupiter was king of the gods. And Saturn -- its dazzling rings unknown to ancient skywatchers -- was treated as an ordinary denizen of the heavens, a second-class citizen. Its only real distinction in history is as the origin of the word "Saturday."

It took the invention of the telescope and, at first, some courageous public reports by early astronomers to set the record straight a bit. The planets, it turned out, were not supernatural creatures but separate worlds, albeit very different from Earth. Yet scientific discoveries about them have never succeeded in dampening the public's appetite for new planetary legends.

We now know, for example, that lovely evening/morning star Venus resembles hell a lot more than heaven. In the 1970s and '80s, several Russian Venera spacecraft landed on the planet and returned images and data revealing atmospheric pressures that rival the depths of Earth's oceans and a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead.

Mercury, which has been visited only once, by the Mariner 10 spacecraft in 1973, may be slightly less hotter than Venus but just as uninhabitable. It has no atmosphere to speak of and its surface spends long periods either fried by solar radiation or plunged into icy darkness.

Jupiter and Saturn are visible from Earth only because they are so large. The "gas giant" planets have no solid surfaces and atmospheres composed mostly of hydrogen and ammonia. Most of their moons are frozen solid and so far away from the Sun that you could never experience an earthly bright day.

That leaves Mars, loathed and feared by our ancestors, but ironic as it seems offering the best possibility to fulfill the fantasies of neighboring life that have captured people's imaginations for 125 years -- ever since Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli trained his new telescope on the red planet and wrote down a word that resulted in one of the biggest misunderstandings in history.

Schiaparelli observed what appeared to him to be strange lines across the Martian surface, perhaps channels carved by water. So he wrote the Italian word for channels in his journal -- canali.

When Schiaparelli's report reached the English-speaking world, it caused a sensation. His canali were thought to be canals, trenches connecting the Martian oceans dug by intelligent beings.

Before long a sort of Martian mania gripped America and Europe. People could not learn enough about the Red Planet. Legend has it a newspaper publisher, desperate for material, sent the following telegram to a noted astronomer: "(Send me) immediately 500 words on whether there is life on Mars." The astronomer replied: "Nobody knows," 250 times.

Twenty years later, the Martian canals idea inspired H.G. Wells to write War of the Worlds, which began: "No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than our own...(that) regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."

The book became an international best seller and the fascination with Mars persisted for years. It ignited once again on Halloween in 1938, when Orson Welles produced his legendary radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which relocated the Martian invasion to a small town in New Jersey.

The broadcast caused a panic because many people who heard it did not realize it was fiction. They believed it was real -- mainly because for so many years, they had heard stories about warlike Martians and the possibility of an invasion from the sky.

During the past quarter century, due to some spectacular successes in planetary missions, we have learned more about our solar system than in all previous human history. The United States and the former Soviet Union have sent about a dozen spacecraft to Mars alone. In 1977, two Viking spacecraft landed on the surface and beamed back photographs. So did the Pathfinder in 1997 -- 100 years after Wells published his novel. The twin Voyager missions of the 1980s to the outer planets and the recent Galileo mission to Jupiter collectively have sent back thousands of stunning images and enough data to take scientists years to interpret. No doubt the Cassini probe to Saturn, due to arrive in 2004, will add to the wealth of information.

Despite all the flybys, orbits and landings, despite the photos and data, thus far none of these worlds has shown signs of life. The five lights in the twilight sky are barren and inhospitable places. But they can remind us how unique our little planet is and how precarious the human life that lives upon it.

As for Mars, far from being a place that resembles Earth, it is a cold, cruel world as well. Its red dust is everywhere, except at the two poles. They are covered with ice, but they are much colder than our polar regions.

Do not rule out the possibility of life on Mars, however. There are no canals, but there is water, and where there is water, there can be life -- just probably not the kind of life envisioned by Wells.

The late astronomer Carl Sagan probably best described how those famous canals could one day finally appear on Mars. In his immortal television series, Cosmos, he said, "If the planet ever is terra-formed, it will be done by humans beings whose permanent resident and planetary affiliation is Mars. The Martians will be us."

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