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Mars's approach unearths discovery of local treasure

NORTH ANDOVER -- The week that Mars moved to its closest point to Earth in 60,000 years, one of the area's best-kept secrets was revealed.

About 400 people thronged to Merrimack College on Aug. 27 to view Mars through the high-powered telescope housed in the school's observatory. Ordinarily, just a handful of stargazers show up at the observatory on Wednesday evenings, when the domed room is open to the public.

The observatory is one of a few such public facilities north of Boston, and Merrimack College kept the observatory open the entire last week of August to allow public viewing of the planet, which appeared as a red or bronze disk slightly larger than the surrounding stars. The college will continue to provide access on Wednesdays, as Mars slowly retreats.

"I didn't know they had" a telescope, said Stacey Fatalo of North Andover, who was there with her two children and her mother, Mae Berreman, "and I grew up around here."

Many learned of the observatory only after newspaper stories listed viewing stations for the Mars event and included the Merrimack College observatory.

"Mars will be visible for the rest of September," said Brian Lankshear, a physics technician who staffs the dome, after he had entertained 50 or so observers and was ready to head home at 11:30 one recent night.

But just then, a wide-eyed Dorothy Graskamp stepped off the elevator.

"Is this where I see Mars?" she asked. The seventh-grade geography teacher at the John Wynn School in Tewksbury had put in a long night of class preparation before venturing out.

"I wanted to wait until it got really dark," she said.

But it never gets really dark at Merrimack College, which makes the observatory a less-than-ideal site for viewing the galaxies.

Security lights illuminate the campus at night, preventing stargazers from viewing dimmer planets and stars, said amateur astronomer Ralph Pass. It's one reason that members of the North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club don't meet there to look at the sky, he said. Instead they gather on clear Friday nights at Veasey Memorial Park in Groveland.

"There are conflicting desires on the part of the college officials," said Pass, who teaches astronomy at the college. "One is to have an observatory, and the other is that more light prevents crime."

Officials say the lights will not be adjusted.

"They have asked us in the past if they could adjust the lighting," said Robert Coppola, the college's director of physical plant. "The answer is that the college is not interested in jeopardizing the safety needs of the pedestrians."

Coppola said the lights are arranged to shine on all areas of the campus at night, and that crime prevention is the number one priority. He said any new lighting arrangements that might appease astronomers would cost money that's not in the budget.

Pass said Mars has been bright enough to overcome the security lights.

"The glow of the atmosphere did not hurt the view of Mars because Mars was so bright," said Pass, who holds a doctoral degree in mathematics from the University of Maryland. "Although Mars is very interesting and spectacular, once you understand important things in the galaxy, you'd like to see them -- places where stars are being born, places where stars have died. Most of them are way too dim to be seen with the glow."

Pass said that 10 times as many objects can be seen through a smaller telescope just a half-mile north of Merrimack College.

"Usually the bigger the telescope, the more objects you can see," he said. "So saying you can see more with a smaller telescope is a way of saying the light pollution at the college is a tremendous problem."

Merrimack's Ritchey-Cretien telescope, with a 20-inch lens, was purchased secondhand about 13 years ago, according to Lankshear, and cost $17,000. The dome cost another $200,000, he said.

Its nearest competitor is in Andover, at the Phillips Academy observatory inside Evans Hall, which is going to be demolished to make way for a new science building. The academy is about a mile away from the Merrimack campus. Its 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain $75,000 telescope will be housed in the Richard L. Gelb Science Center, currently under construction for $28 million. However, the observatory will not be open to the public, except on special occasions, said spokeswoman Sharon Britton.

Another observatory is located at the Salem State College campus, and Pass said he knows of one or two private telescopes on the North Shore.

Whatever the drawbacks of the Merrimack site, Mars has invaded earthlings' awareness, and hundreds have enjoyed a spectacle through the lens of the Merrimack telescope.

"We've been tracking it all summer," said Kevin Sullivan of North Andover, who earlier had taken his family to Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., where they viewed it from the coast. Sullivan, his wife, Donna, and daughters, Colleen, 8, and Katie, 13, visited the Merrimack observatory twice.

Pass laughed at the hype that pulled so many away from their television sets to view the planet. He said Mars moves closer to the earth every 22 or 25 years due to the orbits of the two planets.

"It came imperceptibly closer this time," he said. "You're talking just thousands of miles. This is not a big deal."

Still, Pass viewed the media sensationalism as a good thing.

"It raises a level of consciousness about the planet, and it gets people looking at the sky," he said. "I hope they walked away realizing that this red disk up there is our closest neighbor in space after the moon."

Gazing out the dome window at Mars, John Ankiewicz joked how the view was "out of this world."

"I think we take space for granted," he said.

Ankiewicz said, he and his wife, Katie, urged their sons, Scott, 9, and Patrick, 14, to spend that evening at the observatory. "We were telling the kids, `Come on, you've got to go see it,' " he said. ` "It's not going to be around again [any time soon]. We'll remember it.' "

Joyce Pellino Crane can be reached at

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