2004 in the stars: 'So much to learn'

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As the second Mars Rover takes its place on Mars next week, and the Cassini spacecraft moves into orbit around Saturn, as two newly discovered comets move this way, 2004 promises to be an exciting year in space.

Jan. 24, NASA's second Mars rover, named "Opportunity" is scheduled to land.

"Opportunity" is the twin of the "Spirit" rover that landed Jan. 3 and started sending pictures back to Earth.

"Opportunity" will land on the opposite side of Mars "in an area where there may have been liquid water in the past," said Colorado Mountain College Astronomy Professor Jimmy Westlake. "If it is found that Mars had liquid water, it means that Mars could have been suitable for life early in its history.

"Mars could have developed parallel to Earth in its early history, before it lost its atmosphere.

"We had some tantalizing hints in Martian meteorites that landed in Antarctica. Through an electron microscope we discovered fossilized microbes."

An article published in the Aug. 15, 2002 issue of "Science" magazine announced the discovery of evidence of primitive bacterial life on Mars. The softball size meteor is said to have landed on earth 13,000 years ago.

"(If "Spirit" and "Opportunity") confirm the existence of past life on Mars, it would kick the Earth out of the last privileged place we've held in the universe," Westlake said. "We would no longer be the only place to have life.

"The implications would be as far reaching as when Copernicus discovered that the Earth was not the center of the universe. This will be the last domino to fall."

If there were life, even in microbial form on our next-door planet it would mean that life is teaming throughout the universe.

"If there are two planets that supported life in our solar system, then what about all those billions of other solar systems?" Westlake said. "I would not be at all surprised."

For those less interested in speculation about life on other planets and more interested in astronomical light shows, 2004 may have something to offer.

On Oct. 14, 2002, the automated camera/telescope system called LINEAR (Lincoln Laboratory Near Earth Asteroid Research Survey) spotted a moving piece of light now called Comet LINEAR. It should be visible to the naked eye in April or early May.

"It first appeared as a tiny blip on a photograph," Westlake said. "As they watch it orbit, it seems to be on an orbit that comes by every million years or so. This could be the first time that it will be close to Earth and the sun.

"It if behaves the way we think it will, it could be a very nice naked-eye comet. Comets are notoriously unpredictable, but the way it is brightening, it could be reminiscent of Comet Hale-Bopp."

Comet NEAT may join comet LINEAR in the sky. The second comet was discovered by the computer program NEAT (Near Earth Asteroid Tracking Program).

"This too is a possible first-time comet," Westlake said. "And it could reach very bright magnitudes.

"The really unusual thing is that in a period of a week (early to mid May), both of these comets will be visible. This could be a once in a lifetime deal."

And toward the end of the year, spacecraft Cassini goes into orbit around Saturn. Cassini was launched Oct. 15, 1997.

It was sent to Jupiter first so that the planet's gravity could propel it toward Saturn. Photographs of Jupiter came back from the Cassini in 2002.

"There are many mysteries about the rings of Saturn," Westlake said. "It is still to be determined what supplies the particles and how they are confined to such a thin layer. Some of the rings are very narrow.

"The dynamics of that whole system are still unclear, and we not sure how new they are to Saturn."

Cassini also will send back information about the weather patterns on Saturn. The planet has the fastest winds in the solar system -- up to 1000 km per hour.

Cassini is going to drop a probe into the atmosphere of Titan, one of Saturn's moons.

"If it survives to the surface, it will send back the first images of Titan," Westlake said. Titan has oceans of liquid methane (the same substance we use as natural gas).

"It is a very bizarre world," Westlake said. "There is so much to learn."

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