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Will Martians attack Earth this month?

Planetarium director discounts invasion threat


NASA - This famous photo of what looks like a face on Mars is really just a hill, according to Pat Hanrahan, Mt. Hood Community College planetarium director.This is the merry month of May — most especially if you’re planning an invasion of Earth from Mars.

That’s right, by May 22, Mars will be one of the brightest objects in the night sky, according to Pat Hanrahan, planetarium director at Mt. Hood Community College, 26000 S.E. Stark St.

“Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been in more than a decade,” he said. “Earth and Mars pass each other on their way around the sun about every two years, but some approaches are closer than others. This is because both Earth and, mostly, Mars have noncircular orbits around the sun. We’ll be even closer in 2018.”

Hanrahan will address the approach of Mars, as well as a rare transit of Mercury across the sun, in presentations at the college’s planetarium, beneath the library, Monday, May 3, and Thursday, May 12.

NASA - NASA's Curiosity Rover took this image of Mount Sharp which is the central mountain within Mars Gale Crater. This image and others will be discussed at Mt. Hood Community Colleges planetarium this month.Too close for comfort

With Mars closer to Earth, the red planet’s warriors will be in a prime position to save on spaceship fuel should they launch that day to attack Earth. However, Hanrahan dismissed concerns of an invasion, citing a lack of evidence that Martians exist.

“At one time, we took the idea of intelligent life on Mars quite seriously,” he says. “Back in the early 1900s, Percival Lowell was convinced that he had found canals on Mars, for the Martians to bring water down from their polar ice caps to the equatorial latitudes.”

Fair enough, but what about that famous picture of a face on Mars, which clearly shows a man buried in the sand, yet hungering to eat Earth?

“Mars has lots of hills, and a low resolution picture of one of them was very interesting,” Hanrahan says. “Later we took better pictures of this hill, and it wasn’t nearly as exciting! It’s just a hill.”

However, when pressed, Hanrahan admitted the possibility Mars could have once harbored life, although he did not confirm the supposed existence of a giant army of imperial warriors who lusted for Earth’s verdant realms. For example, he says, NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which landed in August of 2012, found evidence that knee-deep fresh water may have flowed on Mars earlier in its history.

“When Curiosity drilled into rocks, it found clay minerals that appear to have been created under fresh water conditions,” he says. “Its sampling of isotopes in the atmosphere of Mars are consistent with Mars having a much more substantial atmosphere at one time.”

Marauding Mercury

Hanrahan notes that Mars’ approach this month will compete with the planet Mercury’s May 9 moment in the sun, or actually, crossing of the sun. Astronomers welcome such “transits” as a learning opportunity, Hanrahan says.

“NASA’s Kepler Telescope has been searching for planets transiting in front of distant stars,” he says. “This is exactly the same type of phenomenon as we see when Mercury transits in front of our sun. This could allow us to double check our Kepler planet detection methods with this event.”

Scientists also hope to study a “teardrop” effect that seems to make Mercury come in contact with the limb of the sun sooner than it should, he adds.

“This is still somewhat of a mystery, but it seems to be caused by effects of looking through Earth’s atmosphere,” Hanrahan says.

If you go

WHAT: “Mars Approaching! And a Rare Transit of Mercury”

WHEN: 6 and 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, and Thursday, May 12.

WHERE: Sky Theater planetarium, Mt. Hood Community College, 26000 S.E. Stark St.

COST: $5, $2 for children 17 and younger and for MHCC students (identification required).

INFO: mhcc.edu/planetarium