As you may recall, Mars totally rocks.
The red planet hasn't been on the radar of many earthlings for a while (heck, even this weekend's reboot of "Total Recall" apparently leaves Mars out of the equation -- instead it's the United Federation of Britain? Really?). But the fourth rock from the sun will be riding high on our event horizon Sunday night as NASA's latest and largest rover, Curiosity, makes its final approach after a 350-million-mile journey.
It's scheduled to land at exactly 10:31 p.m. PDT Sunday. Not sure how they know that. After all, no one could tell me my recent flight to Chicago would ultimately be three hours late, but somebody can predict, down to the minute apparently, the landing of a craft that's been en route for eight months. Maybe NASA should start up a commercial airline.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco will webcast the landing event, beginning at 10:15 p.m. (www.exploratorium.edu/mars), and scientists there are virtually bouncing off the walls like so many excited electrons. One of them, Paul Doherty, is either the museum's senior planetary physicist and resident Mars expert or a giddy kid in line for his first ride on Space Mountain.
"When the signal comes in, telling us if the rover landed safely, I'm gonna be on the edge of my seat," he gushed Thursday night at a brief and superfun lecture during the museum's "After Dark: Mars!" event. "The
If I were taking physics classes, I'd rank Doherty -- who worked on the Viking orbiter project that went to Mars in 1976 -- as my favorite Martian professor.
The rest of the event was cool too. People showed up in tinfoil hats and spring-loaded antennae. Some tried to see Mars through fat telescopes in the parking lot, but ended up viewing San Francisco fog. Some crafted protective landing capsules for eggs to be dropped from "space" (the museum's second-floor balcony) to "Mars" (a patch of tarp sprinkled with red sand), all while staying within a $500 million budget -- easier said than done since rubber bands and plastic straws were $25 million to $50 million, and the mere use of scissors cost a whopping $150 mil. "The scissors lobby is very influential right now," joked museum volunteer, Ryan.
Visitors also got to check out the full-size Curiosity replica -- one of only two in the country on loan from NASA -- which will be on display through Sept. 16. The real rover weighs a ton, about the same as a Smart car, plus it's carrying 165 pounds of advanced scientific equipment including a nifty telescope/phaser-type device that projects a laser beam that can vaporize rock from 20 feet away. Yikes.
Mars is indeed fascinating, possibly because it's far away and that means we can't get to it easily to claim possession of it and ravage it. So there's mystery and myth and adventure and apparently a lot of dust.
It seems clouds of rust-colored particles sometimes engulf the whole planet, making the recent storms in Phoenix look like puny dust bunnies under your couch. Daytime sky regularly resembles the atmosphere over L.A. in the summertime. But the blue sunsets are nice.
Yes, it's the "red" planet, but there's something in the atmosphere that makes the sky red in the day and blue when the sun goes down. Just as our sky is blue, then red at sunset. Doherty explained the process, but I think my antennae were on crooked.
The temps aren't too bad. Well, it can get to 100 below, but then up to a sweltering 60 degrees at the equator. Even with the chill, there's something about air bubbles in your blood and low atmospheric pressure that can make your blood "boil," your eyes bug out and your head implode after about 15 seconds of exposure. That's faster than you can slather on the 5,000-SPF Coppertone needed just to walk out into the sunshine and not fry into a piece of crisp bacon.
It seems there are lots of ways to be killed to death on Mars.
Perhaps I'll wait to visit when they get some colonies with fancy hotels and spas protected by big bubblelike biospheres up and running. Oh, I'm all for human space exploration. But I'm a fan of "Star Trek" style, where you wear pajamas and fly around in roomy climate controlled space ships and all the planets have comfortable Class M conditions.
Then maybe I'll hitch a ride to Mars and start my own newspaper. "The Martian Chronicles" sounds like a good name, but I have a feeling that's taken.