Solar-system series needs second Sagan Preview: Six-night television show on the Learning Channel tells all about the space where we live, but it lacks the starry-eyed passion the late astronomer brought to the subject.


"Solar Empire" makes a few things cosmically clear.

For one, the solar system is an immense place, full of surprises. For another, space exploration has produced breathtaking results when it comes to our knowledge of the sun and its planets.

For a third, we are really going to miss Carl Sagan.

A six-night, six-hour series airing tomorrow through Friday on the Learning Channel, "Solar Empire" leaves little out when it comes to our solar system. It trots out a raft of interplanetary spacecraft (Voyager, Galileo, Magellan), the world's foremost scientists and astronomers, astrologers and prophets of doom, photography that's almost too good to be real, sophisticated computer graphics, even carefully modulated narration from a confirmed TV space traveler: Michael "Worf" Dorn of "Star Trek."

What it doesn't bring to the party, however, is the passion Sagan brought to the much-lauded "Cosmos," the sense of wonder and awe and gee-whiz enthusiasm that made audiences just as excited as he was and kept them enthralled through the series' 13 chapters.

Certainly, the men and women of "Solar Empire" are both experts in and enthusiastic about their fields. In Friday's show, "Edge of Darkness," the crew behind the Jupiter-bound Galileo spacecraft helps viewers feel every moment of euphoria and disappointment as their crippled but game craft crawled its way into space (it reached Jupiter in 1995).

Yet these folks are only on hand for one segment of one show; what "Solar Empire" needs is one enthusiastic voice to weave everything together. Without that, it's too easy to become lost in all the science.

That flaw aside, however, the series is fascinating. The photographs, from both planetary satellites and the Hubble space telescope, are awesome. If nothing else, to think that humans have actually snapped close-up photographs of Uranus and Neptune renews one's faith in technology.

The series begins tonight with "A Star Is Born," which offers the latest theories on the processes that gave birth to our 10 billion-year-old sun and its system.

As an introduction to the more detailed episodes to follow, "A Star Is Born" kicks things off nicely. The planets are introduced, as are the space missions we've sent to survey and map them. Our eternal fascination with the sky is touched upon (a theme developed more fully in Thursday's "Heavens Above"). And the sun, the center of it all, is carefully examined.

Also introduced is the series' most endearing asset, the constant parade of fascinating facts that should, if nothing else, make you the hit of your next cocktail party. Astronomers believe, for example, that Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun, was once shattered by a colossal cosmic impact, only to be re-formed when the planet's remaining gravitational pull brought the chunks back together. Winds up to 1,000 mph blow across the surface of Neptune. And the sun accounts for 99.999 percent of the solar system's mass.

Among the other episodes:

"Alien Neighbors" (Monday) details the potential for life on our neighboring planets and their moons.

"Space Trek" (Tuesday) uses a "look back" from the year 4998 to take a detailed look at the (highly theoretical) history of interplanetary exploration. Although much of the "history" is based on speculation, the hour includes details of the planned Cassini spacecraft (bound for Saturn) and the Pluto Express, destined for launch early in the next century.

"Impact!" (Wednesday) explains how Earth has played host to plenty of interplanetary visitors, from the rock whose impact probably killed off the dinosaurs to the meteor that left behind a huge crater in Arizona, to pieces of the asteroid Vesta (discovered in Australia).

"Heavens Above" (Thursday) chronicles our long fascination with the planets and obsession with figuring out what they mean. Among other items of note, it points out that the Earth's wobble has caused the sun's position to change with relation to the various signs of the zodiac, meaning that everyone's sign is off by one.

'Solar Empire'

What: Six-part science series

Where: The Learning Channel

When: 10 p.m.-11 p.m., with repeats 1 a.m.- 2 a.m., tomorrow through Friday.

Narrator: Michael Dorn

Pub Date: 7/26/97

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