Revisiting Mars stirs memories of past encounters and stokes anticipation.
Some of my fondest astronomical memories are of the red planet. The Mars of Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell was the one that excited my youthful imagination. The idea that primitive plant life existed on Mars’ parched, dusty surface seemed entirely plausible—indeed, probable. And who knew what may have existed in the remote past? Perhaps there never were Martians like those described by H.G. Wells or Ray Bradbury, but still . . . what if? When you’re 10 years old, lots of things are possible.
My earliest recollection of seeing Mars for myself was during the favourable August 1971 opposition. My dad had probably heard a sensationalistic item on the radio about the planet being unusually close (some things never change), and he woke me in the middle of the night so that I could witness the “once-in-a-lifetime” spectacle. Unaware of the hype, I was, nonetheless, impressed by the brilliant, vividly orange beacon low in the southern sky. All close oppositions of Mars are notable, but some such as that 1971 encounter—are more memorable than others.
It was during the 1988 summer opposition that I truly got to know Mars with a telescope. At the time, I was living in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, and did most of my observing with a 6-inch reflector on my sixth-floor, southwest-facing apartment balcony—the scope’s short (f/6) focal ratio made it ideal for such cramped confines. Even so, I had to coordinate my viewing sessions to start when Mars cleared the corner of the balcony directly above me. To my amazement, I discovered that during the quiet hours of the early morning, big-city seeing conditions can be surprisingly steady. Night after night, I peered into my scope’s eyepiece, thrilling at the views and sketching what I saw.
Some of my most exciting Mars observing came during the 2001 close approach, when I was an editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Being responsible for the observing section, I helped shepherd into production an article by noted planet observers Tom Dobbins and Bill Sheehan. Bill and Tom discussed short-lived specular flares—glints of sunlight reflecting off the Martian surface—that might be visible when conditions were just right. As their article described, there had been some credible flare observations in the 1950s, but the reality and nature of the phenomenon was far from certain.
Armed with a table of predictions, then editor-in-chief Rick Fienberg and I flew to the Florida Keys to take advantage of the region’s famously steady seeing conditions. We set up our gear at Tippy D’Auria’s house along with a few other observers, including Tom and ace planet imager Don Parker, who planned to record the hoped-for flares with video equipment attached to his telescope. To our great delight, on the third night of our Florida stay, we witnessed a succession of starlike flashes on the Martian surface—events that we were able to relive later when we reviewed Parker’s video recording. It was a remarkable night that ultimately resulted in one of the few occasions my name has appeared in an International Astronomical Union Circular.
So here we are on the eve of another great opposition. For just the fourth time in my life, Mars will come within 60 million kilometres of Earth. I’ll be out with my scope every clear night this summer getting reacquainted with my old friend. At some point, I’m sure I’ll pause to reflect on how much has happened since our first meeting in 1971. I’m a much more experienced observer now, with half a lifetime under my belt, while Mars has been extensively mapped and explored by numerous robotic probes since Mariner 4’s initial visit, in 1965. But in spite of everything, I know that when I peer into the eyepiece at that peachy orange Martian disc, looking back will be the same mysterious world that sparked so much excitement in me decades ago.
Check out the July/August 2018 issue of SkyNews for an expanded version of Gary’s Editor’s Report.