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Space Museum takes audience on a journey of Mars

"Mars Odyssey", a new sky show being screened at the Hong Kong Space Museum until May 24, 2004, initiates audiences into the mysteries of a planet that has long titillated the imaginations of scientists and science fiction writers alike.

The show is enriched by an exhibition of the same title, which opens next Friday (December 19) and also runs until next May 24 in the foyer of the Space Museum.

Since the advent of modern astronomy, Mars has been regarded as the planet in our solar system, apart from Earth, that has the strongest possibility of being able to support life. That is because Mercury and Venus are too close to the Sun while Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are too distant from it. Life is considered to be unlikely in either one of these extreme conditions.

Mars is the first outer planet beyond the Earth's orbit. Even though its diameter is only half the earth's and its mass only one tenth, it shares many similarities with our own planet, such as the period of rotation and seasonal differences caused by the tilt in its rotational axis.

At the end of the 19th century, an American astronomer, Percival Lowell, concluded that cultivated areas - and indeed Martians - did exist on Mars. While the assertion aroused great interest, it wasn't until the 1960's, when the first space probes of nearby planets were launched, that scientists could put Lowell's theories to the test.

The first successful flybys of Mars were achieved by Mariner 4 in 1965, Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 in 1969, and Mariner 9 in 1971. The pictures transmitted back to the Earth revealed a dead planet full of craters, huge volcanoes and valleys. Still, its dried riverbeds indicated that water had at least once existed on the planet, and this encouraged further attempts to find evidence of some form of life.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched two Viking landers and orbiters in 1975. However, analysis of the soil samples it collected failed to yield firm evidence of life.

The United States in 1996 launched the Mars Global Surveyor with a mission to survey the entire surface, atmosphere and interior of Mars. The data collected in this project far exceeded all of the information gathered in previous missions. The images captured by the Mars Global Surveyor showed evidence indicating recent existence of water on the planet's surface.

The Mars Pathfinder, which carried a remote control rover, known as Sojourner, was also launched in 1996 with an aim of analysing the rocks and soil of the Martian surface. In 1997, Sojourner sent back images of unprecedented detail, which were seen by millions on the Internet.

In 2001, excited by the discovery of Martian landscapes carved by water, the US sent the Mars Odyssey spacecraft into orbit around Mars. Not only did it find an abundance of water under the planet's surface, it also found that the water content was as much as 50% between the latitudes of 55 degrees and the two poles. Even along the Equator, water accounted for 2% to 10% of the weight of the soil.

Another two Mars Exploration Rovers were launched in June and July 2003. They are scheduled to land on Mars in January 2004 to search for and characterise a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has also launched a Mars Express project - its first planetary project - to test for signs of life on Mars.

Mars Express spacecraft was launched in June this year and is expected to land on Mars on December 25, Christmas Day. It is made up of an orbiter, a Beagle 2 lander and a launch rocket. The Beagle 2 is a laboratory equipped with a robotic arm. At the front end of the robotic arm is a series of exploration tools, including a pair of cameras, a microscope, two spectrometers, spotlights, and a mole and mars rock corer for sampling soil and rocks.

The Mars Rock Corer was jointly developed by 12 researchers in Hong Kong. Among them are four scholars from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Dr Ng Tze-chuen, Professor Yung Kai-leung, Dr Chris Wong Ho-ching, Mr Yu Chun-ho, and an engineer, Mr Chan Chiu-cheung. It was the first space tool developed by the Chinese to land on another planet.

In space, the Mars Express orbiter will photograph the planet in stereoscopic colour, analyse the mineral composition and look for water on the surface.

The 40-minute sky show "Mars Odyssey" will carry the audience deep into outer space on a virtual journey to Mars.

It is screened at 2.40pm and 6.10pm daily at the Space Theatre of the Museum. There is an additional show at 11.10am on Sundays and public holidays. Tickets are available at the Space Museum Box Office and at all URBTIX outlets at $24 (front stalls) and $32 (stalls), with a half-price concession for full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Coinciding with the sky show is a free "Mars Odyssey" exhibition. Through display panels rich in photographs and explanatory texts, the exhibition will present general information of Mars and the latest information supplied by the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Mars Express.

The Space Museum is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. It is open from 1pm to 9pm from Monday to Friday, and from 10am to 9pm on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. It is closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays) and the first two days of the Lunar New Year. It will close at 5pm on Christmas Eve and Lunar New Year's Eve. For further information, please call 2721 0226 or visit the Museum's website at .

Ends/Thursday, December 11, 2003
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