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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Mars up Close

Aired August 26, 2003 - 20:49   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: If the skies are clear where you live, be sure to go outside later tonight and look up. You're going to see something that has not happened for 60,000 years. It won't happen again until 2287.
Tonight, the planet Mars is merely some 34 million miles away and bright enough for even city dwellers to appreciate. Joining me now is astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium here in New York City. Always good to see you -- welcome.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, ASTROPHYSICIST: Thank you.

ZAHN: All right. I don't want to play Scrooge here, but make us all get excited about this tonight. Why should we care?

TYSON: Well, it hasn't happened for 60,000 years. So no one was alive today who was alive back then, so why not take advantage of it? But really, Mars is close to earth every couple of years. It's just that now it's kind of setting a record and people like records. So I'll take any excuse I can get to have people look up, especially city people.

ZAHN: Let's talk about the folks who really aren't terribly interested in science and space. Make them care. What is it that they should find most fascinating about what they hopefully see tonight.

TYSON: Because when they look at Mars, when they find Mars -- which, by the way, is the brightest object in the night sky. It's not as bright as the moon, of course, but there's nothing else as bright as Mars tonight and for the rest of this weekend and the week after that and the week after that.

They should look at it and know we've got space probes on route to Mars. Mars has captured not only the scientific imagination, but the imagination of our most creative people, the science fiction writers who have all imagined Mars to be teaming with life, sometimes invading Earth, as was the case in "War of the Worlds" back in 1938.

ZAHN: Well, let's talk little bit about astronomy for dummies here. Can most people actually see Mars tonight with a naked eye, or do you need something more?

TYSON: Yes, your eyes are your best telescope for the moment. And you just look -- Mars is opposite the sun. So sun sets in the West. Go look in the East about an hour later and the only bright thing that's going to be there is Mars. Now as long as you don't live near an airport...

ZAHN: Which might obscure your vision, or you live in New York City where the lights block out everything.

TYSON: You might think that you're seeing an airplane because it's bright enough. But if just sort of hovers there and doesn't go in for a landing, it's Mars.

ZAHN: What are you going to see if you look through binoculars?

TYSON: Binoculars you will get a better view -- tiny little opera glasses you'll get a much better view of it and you'll see the intense color, the very deep, amber, almost reddish color of Mars. The Romans knew this and, hence, it's the god of war, the color of blood.

If you have slightly binoculars, you get to see not only the intense color but you might be able to catch a glimpse of the ice caps. Mars has ice caps just like Earth does.

ZAHN: You're going to see that with a high-powered binocular?

TYSON: Very high powered, or, better, even a moderate-powered telescope. This is kind of an entry level telescope here. They get bigger, but with telescopes you will be able to see the ice caps. And we have ice caps.

Mars rotates once about every 24 hours just like we do. Mars' axis is tipped, just like ours is. So all of these factors conspire to make us terribly fascinated in this object.

ZAHN: Finally tonight, a lot of questions raised in this NASA report, what some describe as a scathing report on the leadership at NASA and a lot of debate about whether you can ever convince the American public it's worth exploring Mars.

TYSON: Well, I can tell you this: you know, I've got in my hand here a meteorite from Mars. This came from Mars. And if we ask ourselves...

ZAHN: Can I touch that?

TYSON: Oh yes, sure, sure.

ZAHN: Wow.

TYSON: Now you've touched Mars. This is from our collection at the American Museum.

ZAHN: I didn't know I was going to have such an exciting ride today.

TYSON: Yes. Not many people get to touch a Martian meteorite. I think this will go on display in our new meteorite hole (ph) opening up (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in about a month. But you should know that there's -- this came from Mars. There are bacteria that we know that could survive a trip through space. And we think Mars might have had life before Earth did, and maybe Earth life was seeded by Martian life.

ZAHN: So you and I are Martians, basically, you're saying.

TYSON: Martian descendants.

ZAHN: OK. Thank you for the lesson.

TYSON: Oh, it was a pleasure.

ZAHN: And next time you decide to hold a class nationwide, we will all join you, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

TYSON: Just keep looking up.

ZAHN: Very exciting. We'll be looking up as well tonight.

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