Thu, 28 Aug 2003

Thousands fight for close encounter with Mars

Yuli Tri Suwarni and R. Berto Wedhatama, The Jakarta Post, Bandung/Jakarta

The usually silent observatory in the Ismail Marzuki art center compound was packed with thousands of people on Wednesday.

Outside still more waited to get in. At around 11 p.m., a crowd smashed the glass panels of the building and entered, while it was reported other enthusiasts had collapsed in their attempt to see Mars at its closest proximity to the Earth, a natural phenomenon which astronomers said previously happened some 60,000 years ago and will repeat in another 205 years.

In the Bosscha astronomical observatory in Lembang, near the West Java capital of Bandung, others gathered for a closer look at the night sky,

But these were just a small portion of the millions of enthusiasts across the world hoping to gaze at Mars in its closest proximity to Earth, a natural phenomenon which astronomers said previously happened some 60,000 years ago and will only be repeated in another 205 years.

The long queue at the front gate of the Bosscha observatory seemed disproportionate with the building's capacity to accommodate 150 people only. The management of the scientific site divided the visitors in shifts between 7 p.m. to 1 a.m from Wednesday to Friday. Each visitor was charged Rp 10,000 (US$1.2).

Many of the stargazers, who came from Bandung and other cities in Java and Sumatra, decided to take a U-turn and said they would come back the next day.

Bosscha observatory provided five telescopes of 15-centimeters in diameter for the visitors, while the main telescopes -- Zeis and Bamberg -- were used by scientists.

Head of the observatory Moedji Raharto said the government had allocated over Rp 100 million to help astronomers conduct a study of Mars from the observatory. He said a video camera was attached to each of the giant telescopes to record the phenomenon.

In Jakarta, visitors to the observatory were not charged to witness the special event. As a result, even people who had been queuing since 4 p.m. struggled to get inside.

Only two giant telescopes, of one-meter in diameter, were available for the public on Wednesday.

The observatory will be opened to the public until midnight on Friday.

The observatory management also provided TV screens, displaying the phenomenon live for those who weren't able to access the telescopes.

"I'm satisfied although I actually sweated trying to get inside the observatory," a visitor, accompanied by her husband, said.

At 0951 GMT (4:51 p.m. in Jakarta), Mars passed just 55.76 million km (34.65 million miles) from Earth, making it the closest such encounter since the Stone Age.

Hundreds of stargazers queued up outside the Sydney Observatory as dark fell, eager to look through some of about 10 telescopes set up in the observatory's grounds.

"This is only once in a lifetime that I can see another planet... it's really great," stargazer Rebecca Horton told Reuters Television.

Sydney's harborside observatory was bathed in red light to celebrate the passing of the mysterious planet, clearly visible to the naked eye as a bright, twinkling dot.

"We wanted it a little bit bigger," a young schoolgirl named Victoria told local radio after watching Mars with her family from a Sydney beach.

The U.S.-based Planetary Society has declared Aug. 27 "Mars Day". Its website ( details global events from official viewings from observatories in Sydney and Beijing to desert star parties in places like Jordan.

Some of the best viewing will be in the southern hemisphere, especially from isolated tiny South Pacific islands like Tahiti, thought to be the closest point on Earth to Mars, and outback Australia, where a lack of pollution from city lights means the planet will shine bright red in the night sky.

Australia's Siding Springs Observatory, around 400 km (250 miles) northwest of Sydney, beamed images of Mars from its 24- inch telescope onto a large screen at the local Coonabarabran community hall.