Mars and Today's Graduates

In two months, Mars will make its closest approach to Earth in almost two decades.  This month, the high school graduating class of 2018 will embark on making their mark on the world.  What do these two events have in common?  A lot!

I was recently asked to address a high school graduating class.  What to say to them was an interesting problem.  Then it came to me... these kids are leaving the last innocent years of their lives and preparing for higher education and hopefully fulfilling professions.  But they are also part of a unique generation.  Previous generations have been assigned nicknames; the Greatest Generation, mine is the Baby Boomers, then came Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Y, whatever that means.  But today's generation can truly be called the Mars Generation.  Today's high school graduates will eventually build or pilot the spaceships that will finally take humans to Mars, making us a multi-planetary species.


It is fun to think of the possibilities facing this young generation.  I remember when I graduated from high school in 1965.  America was in a technological boom propelled by the 1960s Space Race to reach the Moon.  Indeed, four years after I graduated, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on another world.  At that time, most people expected that it would not be long before human footprints appeared on Mars.  Sadly, the twists of politics and shortsighted politicians not only ended voyages to the Moon, but any hope of reaching Mars within my lifetime.

Today, the prospects of not only returning to the Moon, but finally extending human presence to other planets, is again within the realm of possibility.  One thing that is apparent is that when humans return to the Moon and push outward toward Mars, it is bright people in today's graduating classes that will be in forefront of those explorations.  Today's graduating class is the leading edge of the Mars Generation.  The first boots to imprint the sands of Mars will be worn by someone graduating from high school right about now.


While it will take several more decades, at the least, before humans travel to Mars, the Red Planet itself will also soon be in the news.  This July the alignment of the orbits of Earth and Mars will bring Mars closer to Earth than any time since 2003.  For amateur astronomers, this will be an exciting time.  Mars is only half the diameter of Earth, which makes it a small target in a telescope.  However, during the period when Mars is opposite the Sun from Earth, and therefore closest to Earth, the small planet becomes a respectable celestial target for several weeks.  During this time, Mars attains an apparent angular diameter equal to some of the larger craters on the Moon.  For the several weeks of closest approach, surface details can be easily seen on Mars through common amateur telescopes.


The Mars of today presents an interesting target because of future possibilities for human exploration.  But the Mars of my generation who graduated from high school more than five decades ago was very different.  The first space probes had not yet reached the Red Planet and our knowledge of the fourth world from the Sun was scant.  At the turn of the 20th century, well-known astronomers like Percival Lowell advanced theories interpreting the markings they perceived on Mars as evidence of intelligent life on that planet.  While I never personally believed there were “little green men” on Mars, I did firmly believe, based on what we could see in the eyepiece of my own telescope, that Mars had some form of rudimentary plant life.  By the 1950's. Hollywood capitalized on the musings of Percival Lowell and fantasy writers like H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Borroughs and provided us with B-grade science-fiction movies almost universally depicting creatures from Mars as invaders bent on subjugating our own planet.


Just two months after I graduated from high school, NASA's Mariner 4 probe arrived at Mars and relayed the news to both the crestfallen science and fantasy audiences that Mars is an almost airless cratered wasteland incapable of sustaining life as we know it.  The Mars of my childhood imagination was an impossibility.  Not only were there no intelligent beings on Mars as postulated by Lowell and other prominent astronomers of the early 20th century, not even simple plant life could exist on the almost lunar-like surface of Mars.  Over subsequent decades, NASA has continued its examination of Mars and found it to be a unique and fascinating world, but apparently lifeless so far.


But there will be a Martian invasion.  No, not the invasion of Earth by Mars as depicted in Hollywood fantasy, but an invasion of Mars by Earth.  Humans from Earth will eventually conquer the Red Planet.  The vanguard of that Martian invasion with be led by members of the Mars Generation... like those graduating from high school this month.  The possibilities are endless!


This summer's close approach of the Red Planet will be a bittersweet one for me.  Since such close approaches by Mars only occur at about 18-year intervals, there is no guarantee I will be here to enjoy the next one.  You do the math, Class of '65.... opposition of 2036... maybe.  I’m going for it!


People ask me what telescope is best to view the upcoming close approach by Mars.  Personally, I will be scanning Mars with my beloved Celestron 11.  But today, the choice of telescopes is stunning.  When I first observed Mars in 1961, the four-inch reflecting telescope I had then was considered a fair amateur instrument.  Owners of six- and eight-inch telescopes were considered gods!  Today eight- to 11-inch amateur telescopes are the norm for serious amateur astronomers.  But the reality is the best telescope is the one you own!  Satisfying views of Mars can be seen through small and relatively inexpensive telescopes.  After all, a four-inch telescope was enough to spark my lifelong journey in astronomy.


But if the astronomy bug has bitten and you are shopping for a new telescope, and have an eye on Mars this summer, I would recommend one of my favorite telescopes in the Celestron line... the NexStar Evolution 8 with StarSense.  Since using an Evo-8 several years ago I have fallen in love with its high-performance and portability.  The deep sky views through it are stunning and Mars will be grand in a high-power eyepiece.


I hope you enjoy the planetary spectacle this summer.  Mars will be joined by Jupiter and Saturn and all three planets will spread across the summer sky.  I will be taking every opportunity to enjoy Mars.  While I will be observing the “future Mars” that will be explored in person by today's young dreamers, I will also be reminiscing the Mars of my youthful imagination.  In my mind, the pre-Space Age Mars when science and fantasy held equal sway, is still very real to me.  I look at the modern Mars and remember the endless possibilities we imagined on the Red Planet.  Mars is still a mysterious place and I hope it is a destination that sparks your own dreams and fantasy as well as a curiosity about astronomy and science.