Mars and Earth Make Closest Pass in 50,000 Years
By: Gary J. Senn, Ph.D.

 

The Red Planet, our next-door neighbor in the solar system, will be swinging by Earth on a trajectory that brings it closer than it has been in 50,000 years. Perhaps the greatest aspect of this close approach is the public interest in astronomy that has been generated. When people learn that this event has not occurred in 50,000 years, their attention is elevated. With a heightened interest in astronomy and Mars in particular, the Augusta Astronomy Club and the Dupont Planetarium will host a special star party on August 27, 2003.

Activities will begin at 8:00pm with the presentation of the newest Digistar special effects show. Other showings will be available at 9:00 and 10:00. Members of the Augusta Astronomy Club will set up their telescopes to provide visitors with a glimpse into the heavens. Additionally, the observatory housing the Bechtel Telescope will be available throughout the evening.

While the approach of an event that has not occurred in 50,000 years draws interest from the general public, phenomenon such as this can often lead to unintended outcomes. The last time that Haley’s Comet made a close approach to Earth, there was much public interest in anticipation of the event. When the comet finally came, it was disappointingly unspectacular to many in the general public. It is quite possible that the type of people who were disappointed in Haley’s Comet will also be disappointed in this 50,000-year event.

There are some who are concerned with the long-term response to astronomical events that are touted as spectacular and rare. If the public continues to view such events as unimpressive or events continue to leave the public disenchanted then the public might become apathetic toward astronomical events. Collectively, rare events in astronomy are not really that rare. I refer to these rare events as “astrorarisms.” It is common to find an individual event that occurs only once over some long period of time. People involved in astronomy typically have interest in these astrorarism but the general public might not be particularly impressed.

Astrorarisms seem to have a life cycle. Often, an astrorarism is described in an astronomy publication and is noticed by a general media outlet. The astrorarism is then described in the general media and becomes commonly known to the general public. The anticipation of the event generates excitement from the public, which generates more coverage from the media. When the event finally occurs, the public is disappointed and disenchanted.

How should astronomy educators respond to astrorarisms? Those who are concerned with the long-term public response might suggest that the astrorarisms should be downplayed early so that the public will not build up excitement that will end in disappointment. The hype surrounding astrorarisms often is not controllable by astronomy educators, however. Another approach might be to take advantage of astrorarisms. Astronomy educatory could help educate the public so that they don’t get caught in the hype that leads to disappointment but use the increased interest to help the public gain a better appreciation for and understanding of the heavens above.
There are a number of sources that can be used to help the general public understand more about the current Mars/Earth Proximity astrorarism. The following WWW sites make a great start: http://skyandtelescope.com/, http://www.astronomy.com/, and http://planetary.org/marwatch2003/.