Observing the Planet Mars -- By: Jeffrey D. Beish ( Rev. 17 Oct 2016 )


Mars has a strange attraction to some of us. It is hard to explain without first acknowledging the origins of our interest in the Red Planet. In our younger lives many of us wetted our appetites for Mars by reading the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and others. Stories like, " Pellucidar," " Thuvia - Maid of Mars ," " Tanar of Pellusidar ." The adventure heats up as we read on with, " The Chessmen of Mars " and " The Master Mind of Mars ."

It was Ray Bradbury who wrote of the Sand Ships of Mars in his science fiction novel, The Martian Chronicles ( Bradbury , 1946). One can imagine the fictional inhabitants of Mars trekking across its deserts in their floating machines stirring up huge dust devils. This great science fiction story set the stage for this author’s interest in Mars and who now writes about similar accounts of the real dusty whirlwinds of Mars. Bradbury began as a teenager dreaming of the far off and mysterious world of Mars. In the late 1940’s and 1950’s his articles inspired radio producers to broadcast this series on a weekly program called " Dimension-X ." Some of the readers may remember this radio version of the Martian Chronicles well -- in vivid and scary detail! The dream lives on.

The dark surface markings were once thought by some astronomers to be great lakes, oceans, or vegetation.  Space probes in the 1970’s revealed the markings to be vast expanses of rock and dust. No wonder science fiction writers were so eager to conceive of life on Mars.

Mars appears more Earth-like to us than most of the other planets because we can observe its surface, atmospheric clouds and hazes, and its brilliant white polar caps. The latter are composed of frozen carbon dioxide (CO2) and underlying water ice (H2O), and wax and wane during the Martian year. These aspects, along with the changing seasons and the possibility of life, have made Mars one of the most studied planets in our solar system. Mars offers both casual and serious observers many challenges and delights, as well as providing astronomers a laboratory to study another planet’s atmosphere and surface. Some Martian features even appear to shift position around the surface over extended periods of time. Because Mars has no oceans its charted land area is about equal to that of our own planet because Mars.

In a book titled, Men, Rockets, and Space Rats , by: Lloyd Mallan, 1955, describes these scientists at work at the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico. Walter Haas, founder of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, is also written about in this book. After reading this book my mentors became Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto, who passed his love of watching the Solar System to the consummate Mars observer, Charles F. ("Chick") Capen.

Space Race Opens New Visions of Mars

On September 12, 1964 the Mariner IV was launched and within a year later flew by the Red Planet leaving behind forever our notions that green men inhabited that world. The Mariner and Viking space missions to Mars have given us considerable close-up information and have identified or confirmed many of the features observed by ground-based telescopes and meteorological phenomena recorded by astronomers for over three centuries.

What we found was a barren, wind swept planet, with no oceans or vegetation. Mariner IV sailed by Mars it sent back images of a dead, crater marked planet that stunned both science fiction buffs and planetary scientists. We assumed that life was abundant on Earth-like Mars.  Our dreams of a world of canals, greening with vegetation and Martians on the move to claim their fertile wet lands to work in the long growing season to come. Gone are the fears we had of machines landing on our world with their hovering saucers that would spit out fire and consume us.

What a shock this was to those who believed that Mars was a planet of advanced civilizations.  Images from the spacecraft gave us the first close-up views of the dry and lifeless Red Planet while both surprising and a let down with what we expected to find.

Why Do We Observe Mars?

Questions are often posed to us; are amateur Mars observers doing useful work? Another is; have we been made obsolete by the modern space missions into our Solar System? What of the volumes of information cataloged by Viking mission scientists? The Hubble Space Telescope (HST)? Given the breathtaking images produced by HST and MGS-MOC in recent times and, these arguments may be hard to counter.

Yes, HST, MGS-MOC and Viking had the clearest of views, more so than any we have every seen. But, they were but snapshots of the "Barsoom" that some of us learned to love. No machine every dreamed a new insight or puzzled over something it didn’t quite understand -- Mars is a changing world and the more we, the amateur observer, aspire to see it and to understand it. Our tools are Viking, Hubble, and our telescopes, plus our minds. These space missions have defined and outlined areas for continued future telescopic research. Because these spacecraft are no longer in operation, the only future knowledge of Martian changing phenomena for mankind, until the next spacecraft arrives, will come from Earth-bound telescopes--from you, the Planetary Astronomer!

Are planetary observers obsolete? Is classical research over? While HST works a few brief periods in a busy schedule, providing us with a few images each apparition we still record hours of Martian features. While the silent Viking space ships are still on the surface and in orbit around Mars, that talks with us no more, we draw and photograph the Red Planet, accumulating thousands of reports, measurements, notes that are a permanent record of the history of our neighbor to the outer space.

We Earth-bound and orbit-bound observers will never loose the job of recording Mars, even long after we have colonized the planet, so let’s not hear of this "are we no longer needed."  Visual observers who still practice the art of observing the heavens contribute much to the knowledge of mankind. Their role as amateur researchers remains an important ingredient in Solar System study. Since the human eye is the most sensitive instrument we know of we must first learn to observe the Red Planet using the astronomical telescope.

Since the time when Galileo first used the telescope in the early 1600’s to observe Mars, the Red Planet has been a subject of mystery and intrigue. Inspired by Lowell Observatory’s Leonard Martin and Toledo University’s Phillip James this lineage will continue with the noted Cornell Mars expert, Jim Bell, and a young ALPO Mars observer, Ted Stryke. Our tools are Viking, Hubble, MGS-MOC, and our telescopes -- plus our minds.  Remember this: the final arbiter of knowledge is man himself.

Let the Apparition Begin

We begin early in the apparition when the apparent diameter of Mars is a tiny 3 or 4 seconds of arc and practice each morning until we have identified all the Martian features we have learned over the years. Yes, even experienced Mars observers have to practice before it all comes back. It may take as long as a month of practice to re-acquire "the observing eye for Mars," so to speak. Those first mornings are hard to take. Up at 3 or 4 a.m. to open up the telescope and get ready for a few minutes of viewing. Our eye squints as we take our first glance at Mars’ glaring image in the telescope eyepiece early in a new apparition.

What do I anticipate seeing? The first views will bring a wince. Then as the glare seems to diminish a beautiful disk of the Red Planet will begin to appear more defined. Familiar features will become more recognizable as time passes. Are these first views just a continuation of the last apparition observing? Well, no. We step to the telescope and begin a long period of day to day observing over the next year. We will not have gained back the acquired acuity from the past until a month or two has past, or even longer. Still we draw and photograph the Red Planet, accumulating thousands of reports, measurements, observing notes that become a permanent record of the history of our neighbor to the outer space.

All too soon will the end of an apparition end. We have grown tired of the daily ritual of getting our equipment ready, observing and storing away the telescope. What did we learn? Did we get the feeling Mars was cloudier or less so, did the polar cap shrink faster or slower. How many dust clouds did we see? Were they really dust clouds? We miss the Red Planet.


The ALPO web page:  http://alpo-astronomy.org/
The ALPO-Japan web page:  http://alpo-j.asahikawa-med.ac.jp/Latest/Mars.htm
General Information on Mars: General_Info_Mars.htm

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