Happy Martian Halloween!
Last updated 11/9/2023 at 3:07pm
I've always enjoyed Halloween. I mean, how often can we dress up as crazy characters and wander the neighborhood without being locked up?
But did you know that Halloween has an origin that's rooted in the heavens? It all goes back to ancient Germanic and Celtic cultures who believed that the seasons begin not on the equinoxes and solstices as we do today, but rather on dates midway between them. One of these "cross-quarter days" is Oct. 31 – celebrated as Halloween, which has become synonymous with spooky creatures roaming the night.
One of the scariest Halloweens on record occurred 85 years ago when invaders from Mars took over a small New Jersey town. Throughout that evening, frequent radio news bulletins broke into a popular musical program to deliver live reports of the terrifying invasion.
Of course, it wasn't real. It was just Orson Welles having some fun with his radio recreation of H.G. Wells' story "War of the Worlds," cleverly camouflaged as a newscast. But those who tuned in late didn't know, and many were panic-stricken. Because of this brilliant piece of radio drama, this otherwise quiet Sunday night became forever associated with the planet Mars.
Since then, we've learned quite a bit about the red planet. Over the decades, we've sent more than four dozen robotic spacecraft to Mars, landed 10 safely on its surface and deployed six robots that have rolled across the Martian terrain doing science – three of which are still actively working. Coupled with orbiting spacecraft, all returned to us remarkable details about the rusty orange soil, the geology, meteorology and even possible running water in Mars' distant past. But nowhere did they find the Martians that invaded New Jersey on Halloween Eve of 1938!
Today, NASA, SpaceX and others are working to send the first astronauts to explore the red planet, but massive technological challenges exist, so I can't see it happening until the 2030s at the earliest. But it will happen, and when it does, it will surely revolutionize our knowledge of Mars, as well as produce imaginative technology that will trickle down to our everyday lives.
Anyone who's ever seen the ominous orange glow of Mars in the sky can certainly understand how it can inspire the imagination to run wild. So where can we find Mars right now?
Unfortunately, nowhere. No, that doesn't mean that Mars no longer exists. It means that Mars is now in the worst possible location for viewing: right behind the sun.
This isn't unusual. Astronomers know it as "inferior conjunction," and it happens every two years or so as the planet swings behind our star in its orbit. Be patient until springtime, and you'll begin to see Mars reemerge in the early morning sky. It'll still lie on the far side of the sun, however, so it'll appear quite faint.
By early 2025, however, Mars will reach its "opposition" point, when it will lie closest to the Earth. At that time, it will appear at its brightest, and it will join Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the dazzling stars of the wintertime sky to create a stunning sight for backyard telescopes.
Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com.