The rare occasion of Mars' closest pass to earth at the end of this month has left the people in China contemplate their distance from the rest of the world in astronomy research.
The occasion, astronomers said, was as a touchstone of the Chinese people's science awareness. Many astronomy fans in the country joined their foreign peers from Aug. 27 to 29 to celebrate the Red Planet's mere separation of 55.6 million kilometers from earth, and experts said their enthusiasm indicated that Chinese people's eyes are no longer fixed only on their daily necessities.
Planetariums and astronomical organizations in China organized various activities for astronomy fans to observe the occasion, which has not taken place for 60,000 years.
In Beijing and Shanghai, residents, old and young, took to observatories and open suburban areas to observe the planet under the guidance of astronomers from local observatories.
Stargazers in Nanjing City, capital of Jiangsu Province in east China, were provided an optical telescope by the observatory on Zijinshan, or the Purple Mountain, to catch a good sight of Mars.
Lectures on Mars were also given by astronomers and veteran astronomy fans around the country, whose audiences were mostly made up of primary and high school students.
Prof. Zhang Mingchang, former secretary general of the Jiangsu Astronomical Academy, said that he has never before had audiences so interested in Mars and astronomy.
Astronomical telescopes and publications on the subject have also become parents' choice for gifts to their children.
Despite the growing enthusiasm, some experts acknowledged, the country still lags behind the world in astronomy research. The observatories and astronomical facilities cannot meet the research demands. What's more, they noted, China is in great need of astronomers.
Though Sanya, capital of the island province of Hainan in South China, boasted the most favorable observation location in the country and drew hundreds of astronomers and amateurs Wednesday night, the province still does not have its own astronomy research institutions.
The world witnessed a new round of competition in Mars exploration this year when the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States successively sent Mars Express and a pair of Mars Exploration Rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- into space to collect more information and data for their Mars exploration plans.
However, China has not taken part in the competition.
The Chinese nation is, however, taking steps with its own moon-landing plan and plans for preliminary research on Mars exploration.
Though Westerners in the past had a keen interest in finding Martians, Xinhe, a well-known science fiction writer in China, observes that Chinese people seem to be more interested in the moon. In China, a popular legend about Chang'e, or the beautiful and graceful Goddess flying to the Moon, has been passed down from generation to generation.
"The different interests might be a result of cultural diversity or different locations in observation," the writer says.
"But the emerging interest Chinese people have shown in Mars, I think, is somewhat an indication that Chinese people are looking much farther than before," he said.
(Xinhua News Agency August 30, 2003)