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The Wonder of Seeing Red

We've waited 60,000 years to get this close to Mars. Make the most of it.

August 24, 2003|Timothy Ferris | Timothy Ferris, the author, most recently, of "Seeing in the Dark," observes Mars from Rocky Hill Observatory in Sonoma County.

SAN FRANCISCO — In 1956, Mars came within 35 million miles of Earth. Its unusual proximity created an international stir of excitement that prompted many budding young observers, myself among them, to get telescopes and have a look for themselves. Twelve years old at the time, I badgered my parents into buying me a little telescope as an early Christmas present in order to view that October's event. Few could see anything much through my wobbly spyglass, but by taking it into our frontyard in Key Biscayne, Fla., and training it on Mars night after night, I became enchanted with the Red Planet and with the night sky in general, and I've been stargazing ever since. When I interviewed dozens of accomplished amateur astronomers in the course of researching a book, many reported that they too had gotten started during the 1956 opposition.

Mars was mighty mysterious back then. No spacecraft had been there, and all that was known about it had been garnered by observers peering through telescopes and taking blurry photographs. The intricate network of "canals" that the wealthy amateur Percival Lowell charted from his private observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., was widely -- and rightly -- dismissed as an optical illusion, but nobody could yet be certain that Lowell's notion of a parched Martian civilization having built canals to ferry water from the poles might not be correct.

We kids figured that astronauts would soon explore Mars and determine firsthand whether there was life of any sort there, much less intelligent canal builders. We read books, written by the rocket scientists Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley and illustrated by the space artist Chesley Bonestell, that detailed how we Americans would soon construct a gigantic, wheel-shaped space station in Earth orbit and use it as a base from which to establish colonies on the moon and then Mars. We assumed that people would be living on the Red Planet by the time the great opposition of 2003 rolled around, rendering terrestrial observations superfluous.

But that didn't happen.

Now, Mars is nearing Earth again. Rising in the eastern skies these August evenings, a garnet beacon brightens each night as the Red Planet draws ever closer. On Tuesday night, it will pass within 34.6 million miles of us -- its closest approach in 60,000 years. This encounter extends into September, affording professional astronomers and amateur stargazers alike a unique opportunity to get a firsthand look at an alluring and still-mysterious world.

To see much of anything on Mars you'll need a telescope, but that doesn't necessarily mean running out and buying one. Using a telescope is like playing a musical instrument: It takes practice to get good at it, and beginners risk buying one that's too cheap to work well, or one so expensive that it prompts pangs of regret if it winds up gathering dust in the hall closet. You may be better off trying somebody else's telescope instead, by taking part in a public night at the local science center or dropping in on a "star party" being thrown by local amateur astronomers.

When you do get a look at Mars through a telescope, take your time. Observing is an active process, like cross-examining a witness in court, not a passive one like watching TV, and the longer and more attentively you look, the more you'll see. At a typical magnifying power of around 75x, Mars in a telescope looks about the same size as the full moon does to the unaided eye. On its ocher disk you should be able to see red deserts, some of the more prominent "continents" -- rocky plateaus elevated above the deserts -- and, most conspicuously, the gleaming white south polar ice cap, which is currently tilted toward Earth and is melting along its fringes as Mars goes from southern-hemisphere spring into summer.

Interference from Earth's atmosphere makes the Martian disk appear to shimmer and quake. By waiting for moments when the air settles down and the view steadies, you may be able to perceive intricate detail on the continents, discern the icy fingers where the polar cap edges into the deserts, and view the white clouds that sometimes form above Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, and other towering Martian mountains.

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