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Sundials for a solar system

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Preparations for January’s double Mars landing are accelerating: Last week, NASA made a slight correction in the course of the spacecraft carrying the Spirit rover toward its Jan. 3 touchdown, according to the latest mission status report.

Also, Spirit’s onboard computer and that of its twin, Opportunity, were rebooted due to concerns about the possibility of glitches created during the recent spate of solar storms.

All these tweaks are keeping mission managers busy — but what can avid science fans do to get ready for the big event? Well, you can check our special report on Mars exploration for updates, read up on the Red Planet and make sure that your TV sets and computer monitors are well-adjusted to display potentially eye-popping pictures of the Martian surface. But University of Washington astronomer Woody Sullivan and Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”) have yet another activity in mind: How about building a sundial?

A sundial?

Sullivan and Nye, who happen to be sundial aficionados, helped transform the camera-calibration panels aboard Spirit and Opportunity into artistic timepieces for another planet. In league with the Planetary Society, they are now calling for the creation of a Webcam network of “EarthDials,” representing the widest possible sampling of latitudes and longitudes.

“We’ll have all the dials around the Earth and the two dials on Mars with the same general design,” Sullivan said. “And they will have the same motto — ‘Two Worlds, One Sun.’”

He figures that the materials for building one EarthDial should cost about $50, plus the expenses of operating a 24-hour Webcam. The whole array of darkened and sunlit dials will be displayed on the Planetary Society’s Web site, starting in January and going at least until April, when the Mars Exploration Rover missions are due to conclude.

“You’ll get a palpable sense of what time is on this globe,” Sullivan said. “As your eye sweeps across the screen, you’ll see the shadow angles changing just like the hands on a clock in different time zones.”

The Planetary Society is providing incredibly detailed directions for building an EarthDial. It sounds like a perfect project for classrooms, astronomical clubs or scouting troops. And if the EarthDial seems a little too ambitious for your taste, you can practice by making a sundial necklace, using as little as 30 cents’ worth of materials. How’s that for a stocking stuffer?

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