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Mars Madness Hits the Hanford Observatory!

Mars Madness Hits the Hanford Observatory!

- Contributed by Fred Raab

It was without doubt the "Woodstock" of Tri-Cities star parties. On the evening of Friday, August 29--the last balmy evening of the summer season--LIGO and the Tri-Cities Astronomy Club presented " Mars Madness," an evening under the stars viewing Mars. The event drew a massive and enthusiastic crowd of between 1200 to 1500 people in hundreds of cars to enjoy a rare planetary exhibition. Mars was at its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years. Okay, that proximity actually occurred the previous Wednesday, but the kids were in school then and most people had to go to work on Thursday. But Friday, August 29, was the beginning of the Labor Day weekend and Mars was still the closest it had been since, well, Thursday! It would not be this close again until the 23rd century.

The idea for this event was hatched last spring in a conversation I had with Roy Gephart during a break at a Tri-City Astronomy Club meeting. Roy's day job is with the Pacific Northwest National Lab, but he also keeps busy in his off-hours with many community activities related to science education. Roy is a former president of the Astronomy Club and also authors a monthly astronomy article for the Tri-City Herald. He is active in the Association for the Advancement of Science Through Astronomy (AASTA) and is part of the LIGO Hanford Observatory's Local Educator Network. I suggested it might be a neat idea to hold a club star party on the LIGO grounds. We could offer a nice program covering both visible astronomy using club-member telescopes, and the "invisible" astronomy mission LIGO is pursuing. Roy suggested that the unusually close approach of Mars in August might be the event to focus on. Our proposal to the club met with tremendous enthusiasm.

August became "Mars Month" in the Tri-Cities area. To celebrate this special occasion, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Alliance for the Advancement of Science through Astronomy, and the Tri-City Astronomy Club sponsored an evening of public lectures about Mars on Saturday, August 23. Andrea Dobson, professor of Astronomy from Whitman College, talked about our evolving understanding of Mars, from imagination to reality. Steve Reidel, earth scientist, spoke about Martian geology and compared it to the local geology found in southeast Washington State. Meteorite expert John Wacker discussed Martian meteorites, how they reached the Earth and what they have revealed about the red planet. With everyone's astronomical appetites now whetted, the following weekend was highly anticipated for viewing Mars at the LIGO Hanford Observatory.

The timing was perfect. It was the last weekend of the summer vacation season, but not in competition with the many night-time events we have on other Friday nights during the summer. We also expected a young crescent moon that would be visually attractive in the early evening sky, but not a glowing rival by the time Mars was high in the heavens. For an extra "surprise" treat, we knew we could count on some trailing Perseid meteors. For publicity, Roy requested an announcement in the "Hanford Reach" newsletter that goes out to employees of the Department of Energy's Richland office and its contractors. I requested an announcement for the event in the Tri-City Herald, and Roy and I did a live interview the morning of the event on KONA radio.

The Planet Mars (1). The Planet Mars (2).

The evening began with a presentation and tour of the LIGO Hanford Observatory from 7 to 9 pm. This was the warm-up act for the Tri-City Astronomy Club members, who set up approximately 20 telescopes trained on Mars for public viewing of the planet, with occasional jaunts to the Ring Nebula and other noteworthy sky sights. Although not an especially clear night, people were able to make out the dust lanes in the Milky Way by eye. It was a terrific crowd, with young families, retired folks, couples on dates, and lots of teens, tweens, and little tykes staying up late. Even with all the scopes available, the wait-lines grew very long. One scope, Chris Newbill's 8-1/2 foot long refractor that was brought out to the site in a Humvee, had over a hundred people on line, with wait-times of over an hour. Queues of 50 people were common at other scopes. Roy entertained people waiting with his green laser pointer, delineating various constellations. And despite the trouble some visitors had finding their way in the dark, or the difficulties with parking and long lines, people were good-natured and mellow, enjoying the nice temperatures (from the 70s to the 50s as the evening wore on), the nice skies, and just talking to each other. Several meteors brought shrieks of excitement from the lines throughout the evening. To help relieve pressure on the scopes, I did a second presentation on LIGO that evening, and spoke to over 400 people in the two auditorium seatings. Meanwhile, Mike Landry continuously worked the crowd in the atrium of the Laboratory Building. We also had a crew of folks--Terry Gunter, Otto and Marjory Matherny, and John Worden--who helped direct the hundreds of vehicles to parking stalls and their occupants to telescopes. A crowd of 1500 would be large at a major urban science center. In rural eastern Washington, it represents one-percent of the population of Benton County! We sent off the last of the night's guests and packed up the last scope by 2:30 am, tired but delighted by the evening's activities.

Based on the tremendous public response to Mars Madness, we intend to start planning for similar events at the LIGO Hanford Observatory in the future.


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