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A red dot is blown up to planetary proportions

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 22, 2001


If you ask me, this whole Mars thing has been oversold. Blame it on "reality" television, in which zip-bang-pow action is portrayed as "real life." Puny real life pales in comparison to the alleged portrayal.

Likewise, real Mars is an impressive-enough red dot in the southeastern sky after nightfall. Through binoculars or a home telescope, it even becomes a visible disk. This by itself is a miracle, viewed across 42-million miles.

But, no, that is not enough for modern tastes. Step outside and see the canals! See the ice caps! See evidence (as one Quoted Expert promised) of visible weather damage!

Look, I am as excited as the next sky-geek over finding a little smudge at the right place in the stars. But I do not drag my wife and neighbors outside by promising them little green men. Well, maybe my wife. (See? Astrono-hype is basically a trick to get dates.)

In no way is this a denial of Mars' coolness. Mars is quintessentially cool. It is especially cool when we zip past Mars as we orbit in our inside track. As we look "behind" us in our wake, Mars appears for a while to have reversed course and headed backward. This is called "retrograde" motion, although it is only an optical illusion, unlike the backwardness of, say, Congress.

In fact, all of the visible planets outside Earth's orbit sometimes look like they're going backward as we pass them on the inside. That's one reason they were called "planets" in the first place. The word means "wanderer." You won't see any punk star doing that.

It also is cool that Mars is currently found in the constellation Scorpius, which contains a reddish star so often confused with Mars that it is named "Antares," which more or less means, "Not-Mars." How many stars, or things in general, are so usefully labeled?

The point is, with all this Mars-hype the other planets are being short-changed. For example, if you get up before dawn these days, you can see Venus as a morning star, spectacular in the eastern sky. (It is in the eastern sky because Venus, from our point of view, always hangs out in the same general direction as the sun.)

Because Venus is inside our orbit, to us it has phases, just like the moon -- half-Venus, full Venus, all that. This is true of tiny Mercury, too, which like Venus can either be a morning star, rising just before the sun, or an evening star, setting just after the sun. Finding Mercury in your telescope, in the border of sunlight, is very cool.

And we have not even talked about gaudy Saturn and Jupiter. Jupiter -- now, there's a planet! You can see the stripes and the four biggest moons. The rings of Saturn bring out the planet in 3D -- it is a big ball hanging in the sky and you can see the, uh, ballness of it.

Mars ice caps? Ptui! It is a red dot.

You know what happened Thursday that was just as important? At exactly 3:38 a.m., the Earth reached that point in its orbit of maximum tilt toward the sun -- the summer solstice. The sun's apparent path through our sky got as high as it will get this year and started heading downward. ("Solstice" pretty much means, "sun stands still.")

That means our year, metaphorically speaking, is all downhill from here. Each day will grow minutely shorter until late December. It is Nature's job now to convert potential into reality, yin into yang, fertility into productivity. To grow the crops, produce seed and make way for the next cycle. All of this without air conditioning.

Fortunately for the tasks at hand, Nature also has mercifully decided to provide rain, which, come to think of it, is just as impressive an accomplishment as orbital mechanics. La Nina has receded and the Bermuda High works in our favor, easing a drought that has lasted for some time, certainly since at least, say, the last time Mars came close to us, some two-plus years ago. Say, you don't think ... ?

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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