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Mars Ready for its Close-up

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

This month Mars is the closest it will be to Earth for the next 13 years, and one of the best places to see the red planet is on top of Mars Hill at Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory. Hundreds of parents and young children have been lining up to get a peek.

(Soundbite of observatory activities)

Unidentified Woman #1: It's amazing. It looks like it's burning. It looks like it's living.

Mr. JEFFREY HALL (Associate Director, Lowell Observatory): I am Jeffrey Hall. I'm the associate director for education and development and one of the research astronomers here at Lowell Observatory.

Unidentified Woman #2: What do you see?

Unidentified Child #1: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah?

Mr. HALL: The current fascination with Mars and really the fascination that stretches back over the past century is due, in large part, to Percival Lowell himself. He published popular literature on the subject expressing his belief in the evidence for intelligent life on Mars.

(Soundbite of observatory activities)

Unidentified Woman #3: OK, what am I looking for?

Mr. HALL: You're looking for Mars. It's like a big red disk.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah, it looks like I'm taking an eye test.

Mr. HALL: We know now that he was wrong about that, that we haven't found any evidence for intelligent life on Mars, but what we have found is very strong evidence that at one time water did flow on the surface of the red planet. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which are up there crawling around the surface of Mars right as we speak, have uncovered evidence that this was the case.

Mr. CHARLES COFFEE(ph) (Tsaile, Arizona): I'm Charles Coffee. I live in Tsaile. Tsaile's 200 miles east of here. It's right in the center of the Navajo reservation. I see a round disk of Mars through a red filter, and in the center of the disk there are dark markings. From 200 miles away, it was worth coming here.

Unidentified Woman #4: Oh yeah, it is red.

Mr. HALL: I'm just centering it a little more so--centering Mars a little more so that it's not as difficult to find in the eyepiece.

Unidentified Child #2: What is that?

Mr. HALL: Oh, that's the dome rotating. I have it set up in such a way that, as the telescope is tracking, the dome will automatically track with the telescope.

Unidentified Man: Oh, OK, the red dot there.

Mr. HALL: OK, don't touch the telescope. OK?

Unidentified Child #3: Wow. Wow. Ooh, really cool.

Unidentified Woman #5: We came to Flagstaff for something else, and I didn't know there was an observatory here. So we lucked out. When we got out of the car and we just--I mean, it was like a light show. We're like, `Oh, my gosh. Oh.'

Mr. HALL: See the disk? It's going to be a bright red spot. OK? Can you see it?

Unidentified Child #4: Yeah.

Mr. HALL: That's Mars. What do you think?

Unidentified Child #4: Neat.

NORRIS: Mars as seen through the telescope of Flagstaff, Arizona's Lowell Observatory, an audio postcard from independent producer Sadie Babits. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sadie Babits