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Lecture Notes: guided tours of the red planet

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Back in the early 70s, when Dan Troiani's wife, Kathy, was still just his girlfriend, she dragged him to Adler Planetarium. Troiani had lived in Chicago all his life but had never been to Adler, or to a sky show anywhere else. A science-shy film major at Columbia College, his interest in space was limited to episodes of Star Trek. But that day, when the dome went dark and the sky turned on, Troiani turned on too--sparked by talk of quasars and black holes and Voyager missions. Soon he was joining astronomical societies, dropping by Fermilab for lectures, and staying up all night. He was particularly obsessed with the red planet.

Kathy married him anyway and got used to his new hobby. Still, when he climbed out of bed at 3 AM on December 19, 1979, and trudged into the bitter night, she told him he was crazy. Mars was making one of its cyclical near approaches to earth (they happen every 26 months), and Troiani, alone in the backyard of his Chicago bungalow, trained his telescope on the shimmering disk. He was rewarded with a gloriously clear image of the planetary face, an eyeball-sized world, 50 million miles away. Pressed to the scope, he scrutinized the familiar markings, then noticed something that gave him a little jolt. There was a small gray slash across the northern polar ice cap of the planet. "I knew there were rifts on the south cap," Troiani says, "but I never knew there was a rift on the north cap." Mystified, he sent his observations to the Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers (ALPO). Two weeks later he got an excited call back. "This rift I had rediscovered was first seen in the 1890s," he says. "They called it the Rima Tenus back then. No one had seen it since." His discovery was written up and verified, and before long he was a celebrity in certain circles.

The director of Triton College's Cernan Earth and Space Center introduced himself to Troiani at a 1984 astronomical convention and offered him a part-time job. Troiani took it for the opportunity to run sky shows and learn how a planetarium operates. Two years later, however, when the film lab that had employed him full-time for a decade shut down, he had to scramble to support his family--which by then included three kids. For a while he tried to make a living with three part-time museum jobs. "I was putting in 60 hours a week with no benefits," he says. "It was crazy. I figured for the time being, I'd work for the post office." He started as a letter carrier in Melrose Park in late '86, and the "time being" never ended. Troiani, who now lives in Schaumburg, hauls mail in Melrose Park from 6 AM to 2 PM, then reports to the alternate universe of Cernan, where he plans and produces shows, conducts the center's Monthly Skywatch programs, and is known as Mr. Mars.

Troiani's still spying on the red planet and aspires to be its weatherman. For the last ten years he's been ALPO's Mars section coordinator, providing ground support for NASA missions by analyzing the Martian climate. In Mars's thin atmosphere the frequent dust storms have the effect of sandblasters, he says; landing in one would be disastrous. He's hoping to be able to predict them. Mars and the earth are now heading for another close encounter, and he's been glued to his telescope since January. The April issue of Sky & Telescope magazine carries an article by him explaining the phenomenon and offering advice on how to view it.

If conditions are right, earthlings will get their best look at Mars since 1990 this Saturday. Troiani will conduct a special Skywatch program in the center's 150-seat domed theater at 7:30 that night, followed (if weather permits) by telescope viewing. Tickets are $5. The Cernan Earth and Space Center is located at Triton College, 2000 Fifth Avenue in River Grove. Call 708-583-3100 for information on the Skywatch and the center's regular schedule of planetarium and laser light shows.

If you get there early check out the lobby display case against the theater wall. It contains part of the Daniel M. Troiani collection of rare invertebrate fossils. When Mr. Mars isn't looking up, he's looking down. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

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