'Mars!’ exhibit explores our planetary cousin - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

'Mars!’ exhibit explores our planetary cousin

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Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 2:01 pm | Updated: 8:44 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Christmas is a little bit different on Mars.

Ice does gather at the northern pole, but festivities are less jolly and elf-laden. “Carbon dioxide freezes over the black sand up there,” curator Robert McCord explains. “Then, in the spring, the sun heats the sand beneath the ice and it explodes in these black geysers you can see from space.” Not exactly Currier & Ives, but that’s the point.

DUST OFF: Chief curator of natural history Robert McCord uses a paintbrush to uncover objects in a display inside the Arizona Museum of Natural History’s “Mars!” exhibit. PHOTO COURTESY ARIZONA MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Halfway through the holiday season, you may need to take a breather. With the family commitments stacking up, the holiday budget pulling tighter, the mall traffic forming a Gordian knot and the kids conjuring new and ever-pricier gift ideas, where can you go to get a break from it all?

Red planet ain’t lookin’ so bad now, is it?  

NICE PLACE TO VISIT...

The Arizona Museum of Natural History has a vicarious destination for space buffs, science fans and anyone tired of decking halls. “Mars!” which opened last month, gets up close and personal with our solar system roomie. The planet’s canyons, dunes, volcanoes and dust devils — which keep at least 36,000,000 miles distance — take an obliging trajectory through downtown Mesa through the middle of next year. Orbital rovers last seen on Mars’ distant buttes and gullies are parked throughout the museum’s main gallery like RVs at a Wal-Mart. “Bottom line,” McCord explains, “you’ll see a lot of neat stuff.”

The exhibit is equal parts Martian study, Martian reality and Martian lore. “Mars became this dangerous planet in our culture for a couple of different reasons,” McCord says, in front of an homage to Mars in fiction. “First, Mars is relatively close. You can see it in the sky. It isn’t clouded over, like Venus. And the planet is a lot like ours.” Enough for writers from H.G. Wells to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Ray Bradbury to project nefarious creatures upon it. “Actually, Wells was mocking invasion stories that were popular in science fiction at the time. (1898)” McCord says. “He wrote about Mars, and had a background in evolutionary biology, so he told the story well.” Fiction may have influenced science, as astronomer Percival Lowell wrote a treatise on Martian canals.

“He made a credible case, at the time, that the grooves on Mars were actually canals carved by ... someone.” Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory was established as a platform for further Martian study. What they, and their successors, found was a planet with lots of lessons, if not life itself.

... BUT NOTHING REALLY LIVES THERE

“Mars is a planet that can teach us a lot about earth,” McCord says. “It’s about half the size of earth. It was once covered with water, like earth. It once had continental drift, like we do, and a similar magnetic field.” But, unlike Mars, Earth still maintains a molten core. “In time, Earth will become more Mars-like.”

The interactive features of the “Mars!” exhibit allow kids to learn these lessons hands-on. A Plexiglas tank teaches dune formation by letting them channel wind currents across the sand of a mock Martian landscape. A vapor chamber lets them conjure and touch the kind of corkscrew dust devils that dot the red planet’s horizon; and the geyser exhibit gives kids an explosive chance to replicate Martian spring. A model archeological dig allows kids to sift for the likeliest examples of Martian life: “They’re single-celled fossils called 'stromatolites,’ ” McCord explains, showing models of similar fossils from earth. “Life, if it existed, or exists, would likely be small microbes buried deep below the surface.” Translation: If you find anything, don’t expect a compelling conversation.

The exhibit also pays tribute to the gangly, paneled robots that plumb the Martian surface on our behalf. “We have a full-size Mars Exploration Rover model on loan from the Jet Propulsion lab until January, a full-size Pathfinder Rover and quarter-scale Phoenix Lander model.” McCord said. “We hope to get a Martian meteorite in January, so we’ll be improving the exhibit as we go.” But even now, the “Mars!” exhibit makes a welcome break from the high-energy intensity of Christmas. Just mind those black geysers come Easter.

“Mars!”

The Arizona Museum of Natural History chronicles the red planet

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: 53 N. Macdonald, Mesa

Cost: $9 for adults; $8 for seniors; $5 for children (3 to 12); $7 for students (13 and over, with an ID)

Contact: (480) 644-2230 or click here

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