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Tour guides . . . Oxford Area School students Emma Warwick, left, aged 12, and Chloe Firkin, 15, enjoyed showing people around and sharing knowledge during the Mars Night.

By DAVID HILL

Now is an exciting time for young people to take an interest in astronomy, a keen observer of the heavens says.

Mr Erik Vermaat, speaking at Oxford Area School’s Mars Night on Saturday, said the search for life elsewhere in the solar system and the wider universe was continuing apace, while in New Zealand a space industry was developing.

Hundreds of people attended Mars Night to catch a glimpse of the red planet on its closest alignment to Earth in 15 years.

Mr Vermaat, a former university lecturer in the Netherlands, taught physics and mathematics at the school and was instrumental in establishing the Oxford Observatory with other volunteers.

He says there might have been life on Mars in the distant past, but there are no “little green men”.

“That is the best option and both Nasa and the European Space Agency are really searching for biomarkers with high tech stuff.

“If we do find evidence of life somewhere other than Earth – a second genesis – it would prove that life is teeming in the universe.

“I keep saying to young people that those major discoveries are going to be made in their lifetime and they can be part of it if they want to.”

There are several candidates for evidence of life in the solar system, past or present, on Mars, Venus and moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn.

Mr Vermaat was heavily involved in setting up a special display in the school’s GP Hall with information and videos about Mars, including recent discoveries by Nasa missions – the Opportunity in 2003 and Curiosity in 2012, as well as planned missions in 2020.

There was also a video about American astronaut Peggy Whitson, who grew up in rural Iowa, in a community similar to Oxford.

Two of Mr Vermaat’s students, Emma Warwick, aged 12, and Chloe Firkin, aged 15, were on hand to show visitors around the displays.

“Chloe did two of my courses last year and in the summer holidays she messaged me on Facebook, ‘I want to be an astronomer’,” Mr Vermaat says.

“That sort of enthusiasm from a young person is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for as an educator.”

The Oxford Observatory is looking for more volunteers with an interest in astronomy. Training can be provided.

Mr Vermaat’s teaching resources on astronomy can be found at ngawhetu.com.