The Night Mars Was Closest to Earth

Editor’s note: On August 27, 2003 Mars was closer to Earth than at any time in human history. Author Andrew Chaikin asked Universe Today to tell the story of how he was fortunate enough to enjoy the event with Don Parker, a “superb planetary photographer and wonderful guy,” Chaikin wrote. “I first met Don, a retired anesthesiologist from Coral Gables, Florida, several weeks earlier when I journeyed with my telescope to Florida to photograph the Moon passing in front of Mars, an event called an occultation. I’d seen Don’s work for decades in Sky & Telescope magazine, but until the occultation we’d never met. I certainly had never imagined that he would turn out to be as much fun as he was, with a warped, wickedly bawdy sense of humor. Standing under the moon and Mars we bonded, and soon we were making plans for me to come down to his place for the closest approach.”

Don passed away on February 22, 2015. In his memory here’s an excerpt from Chaikin’s book, A Passion for Mars.

Godspeed, Don. See you on Mars.

Don Parker with his 16-inch telescope, which he used to take thousands of superb images of the planets. Photo by Sean Walker.
Don Parker with his 16-inch telescope, which he used to take thousands of superb images of the planets. Photo by Sean Walker.

ON PAPER, Don Parker’s life story is pretty ordinary: Born in 1939, he grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago. He spent a few years in the navy, went to medical school, and ended up living in Florida with his wife, Maureen, and their children, working as an anesthesiologist in a Miami hospital. Looking at his résumé you’d never know about his other life, the one dominated by a lifelong obsession with Mars. By the time he went to see Invaders from Mars and War of the Worlds as a teenager in 1953, he was building his first telescope, a three-inch refractor with lenses from Edmund Scientific and a body made from a stovepipe his dad got for him.

He was subscribing to Sky & Telescope magazine and following the continuing debate over whether the canals on Mars really existed. That was a question that only a handful of professional astronomers cared about, but amateur observers, like the ones whose drawings were printed in the magazine, seemed to be on the case. Parker got serious about observing Mars himself around 1954, when he tried to create a homemade reflector, but failed when he had trouble with the mirror. His aunt Hattie came to the rescue that Christmas by giving him a hundred dollar bill — quite a bit of money in those days — which he used to buy a professionally made eight-inch mirror. With help from his dad, he assembled the new telescope, using pipe fittings for the mounting.

In the summer of 1956, when Mars made its famously close appearance, he was at the eyepiece making drawings of his own, until a dust storm engulfed much of the planet that September, just as Mars came closest to Earth. “Mars looked like a cue ball,” Parker remembers. “There was nothing on it. It was very disappointing for me.” At the time, he thought the problem was with his instrument. “I even took the mirror out of the telescope,” he recalls. “You know,‘What the hell is going on here?’” Only much later, when information on Martian dust storms began to show up in the amateur astronomy literature, did he realize his view had been spoiled by an event happening on Mars.

Gullies on a Martian sand dune in this trio of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter deceptively resemble features on Earth that are carved by streams of water. However, these gullies likely owe their existence to entirely different geological processes apparently related to the winter buildup of carbon-dioxide frost. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Gullies on a Martian sand dune in this trio of images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter deceptively resemble features on Earth that are carved by streams of water. However, these gullies likely owe their existence to entirely different geological processes apparently related to the winter buildup of carbon-dioxide frost. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

By that time Parker was in high school, and soon Martian canals became much less important than more earthly matters. “Football and blondes were my major,” he quips. Then it was off to college, and his telescope sat unused in its wooden shelter in the backyard. When it came time for his internship he convinced his wife, Maureen, that they should move to Florida so he could pursue his interest in scuba diving.

Needless to say he had no time for astronomy then, or during his residency. Then came a stint in the navy, and by the early 1970s he was back in Florida, beginning his career as an anesthesiologist and raising a family. By the time Mars made another close approach in 1973 Parker had brought his telescope down from Chicago; his parents had asked him to take it out of the backyard so they could put in a birdbath, and a few months after that, he remembers, “Maureen said, ‘Can you get that thing out of the garage?’”

He didn’t expect it to do him much good outside, however. The conventional wisdom was that south Florida, with its clouds and frequent storms, was a terrible place to do astronomy. But he found out differently that summer, when he trained his telescope on Mars. “I went, ‘Holy shit.’ It was just absolutely steady. I couldn’t believe it.”

Parker returned to his old practice of making drawings at the eyepiece to record as much detail as possible. He sent some of his work to Charles “Chick” Capen, an astronomer at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory and coordinator of Mars observations for the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. Soon he and Capen were in frequent contact, and from him Parker learned about the latest techniques for planetary photography.

In the 1970s that was a time-consuming process; he used professional-grade film ordered directly from Kodak and developed it with special, highly toxic chemicals that had to be laboriously prepared for each session. But that became a part of his life’s routine: off to the hospital in the morning, sailing with Maureen in the afternoon, nights at the telescope, and the rest of the time developing and printing his pictures. Returning to work after a beautiful Florida weekend, he says, “Everybody would come in with a nice tan; I’d come in looking like a bed sheet. Forty-eight hours in the darkroom! People would say, ‘Are you ill?’”

All that effort paid off. Parker’s planetary photos were now appearing frequently in Sky & Telescope. But they still couldn’t record the kind of details a good observer could see at the eyepiece. Soon Chick Capen was steering him, gently, toward more ambitious Martian observing projects—especially the exacting task of monitoring the planet’s north polar ice cap. Using a measuring device called a filar micrometer attached to their telescopes, Parker and fellow amateur Jeff Beish studied the cap as it shrank during the Martian spring and summer. Observations going back to the early years of the twentieth century showed that the north polar cap always shrank at the same predictable rate, but in the 1980s Parker and Beish found a surprise: The cap shrank more quickly, and to a smaller size, than ever before. Years before most people had even heard the term “global warming” (and more than a decade before evidence from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor mission) Parker and Beish had found evidence that it was taking place on Mars.

Hubble images show cloud formations (left) and the effects of a global dust storm on Mars (Credit: NASA/Hubble)
Hubble images show cloud formations (left) and the effects of a global dust storm on Mars (Credit: NASA/Hubble)

Soon their observations were being reinforced by several kinds of data from other astronomers, a convergence that Parker remembers as tremendously thrilling. “All this stuff began to come together,” Parker says. “The dust storm frequencies, the cloud study frequencies, the polar cap shit. And it’s almost better than sex. And it came in from a lot of different observers, different times. It’s really kind of cool—when you’re in a science and something all of a sudden falls into place that you don’t expect. It’s really neat. Nothing’s better than sex, but it’s close.” His work with Beish and other observers was later published, to Parker’s great satisfaction, in the professional planetary science journal Icarus. For Parker it epitomizes the rewards of all those hours at the eyepiece. “It’s the thrill of the hunt,” he says. “That’s really the only thing that’s kept me going. Taking pretty pictures is fine and fun, but doing that for thirty years, it wears after a while. You’ve taken one pretty picture, you’ve taken them all.”

In the 1990s, though, the pictures started to get really pretty. For the first time, amateurs had access to electronic cameras using charged-coupled devices (CCDs), like the ones in NASA spacecraft and professional observatories. Around 1990 fellow amateur astronomer Richard Berry convinced Parker to invest in one of these new cameras, but he had a tough time getting used to it. “I hooked it up,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what to do with it. I was afraid of it. So I went back to film.”

Don Parker's image of Jupiter and the Great Red Spot, taken in 2012. Credit: Don Parker.
Don Parker’s image of Jupiter and the Great Red Spot, taken in 2012. Credit: Don Parker.

Some months later Berry came for a visit and showed Parker what he’d been missing. They pointed Parker’s sixteen-inch telescope at Jupiter, and when the first image came up on his computer screen, “It was ten times better than anything I’d ever gotten with film. The detail was amazing. It was really exciting.”

Before long Parker had completely switched over to using his electronic imager, and he never looked back. Unlike film, it offered instant gratification; no longer did he have to spend hours in the darkroom before he could see results. Even more important, the extraordinary sensitivity of CCDs allowed much shorter exposure times than film, making it possible to record a planet during those brief moments of good seeing. He could even create remarkably detailed color images by taking separate exposures through red, green, and blue filters, then combining the results in newly developed programs like Adobe Photoshop.

And to Parker’s great relief, electronic images proved as good as visual observations for monitoring Martian features like clouds, dust storms, and— thankfully—the changing polar ice caps. At last, he could put aside the filar micrometer and the tedious hours that went along with it. But there was no way around the fact that the whole experience of planetary observing had changed for serious amateurs like Parker, just as it had for professionals. He realized this during Richard Berry’s visit, as they filled his computer’s hard drive with electronic portraits of Jupiter. “I said to Richard, ‘We’ve been here for six hours and haven’t even looked through the telescope.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, now you’re a real astronomer!’”

August 26, 2003,
Coral Gables, Florida

With no time for a road trip, I’ve packed my webcam and flown to Miami. I arrive at Don Parker’s waterfront home shortly after he has awakened from yet another all-nighter at the telescope. Don is tall, pot bellied, and nearly bald, with a kind of leering, lopsided grin that spreads mischievously across his face. In his old hospital scrubs he reminds me of Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein. Don wouldn’t mind hearing me say that; he often refers to himself as Mongo, after the character in another Mel Brooks film, Blazing Saddles. (For example: “Mongo got good pictures. Mongo happy.”)

When he was a practicing anesthesiologist he had a penchant for playing crude practical jokes in the O.R. to startle the nurses (the fart machine was a favorite). “It was like MASH,” he says. Now that he is retired there is nothing to stop him from spending every clear night at the telescope—and that is what he does, whenever Mars shines overhead. Back in 1984, when the seeing was even better than it is now, he and Jeff Beish logged 285 nights of making drawings, photos, and micrometer measurements. Parker says, “We were praying for rain. Going to the Seminole reservation to pay the guys to do a rain dance.” Two decades later, his “other life” has become his life. For months now, as Mars has grown from an orange speck in the predawn sky to its current brilliance, high overhead at midnight, Don has faithfully recorded its changing aspect, the shrinking polar cap, the comings and goings of blue hazes and yellow dust clouds, the parade of deserts and dark markings. Maureen is now a full-fledged Mars widow. Don calls it “The Curse of the Red Planet.”

For me this is the big night, and I am full of anticipation. About twelve hours from now, at 5:51am Eastern Daylight Time on August 27, Mars will be 34,646,418 million miles away from Coral Gables. An astronomer at JPL has figured out that this is closer than at any time since the year 57617 B.C., and closer than Mars will be again until the year 2287. For Don, though, this is just one more night in an unbroken string of nights that began last April and will continue into next spring. Don, of course, is far from the only one so afflicted. At any given moment this summer someone around the world is observing Mars, including a couple of twenty-something wizards in Hong
Kong and Singapore who are getting spectacular results with telescopes placed on their high-rise apartment balconies (when I mention them Don curses ruefully, then laughs).

Sitting in Don’s kitchen, we discuss the weather for the coming night— the continuing hurricane season has made things a bit iffy—as he mixes his standard brew of freeze-dried coffee, sugar, and nondairy creamer, a concoction that seems less like a beverage than a research project in polymer chemistry. Arthritis and weakening of the bones in his legs have left him with a limp so painful that he must use a cane, and as he leads me to his upstairs office he utters a string of profanities.

Seated at the computer he unveils his most recent images and I am astonished by their clarity. Even back in April, when Mars was a fraction of its current apparent size, Don was getting a remarkable amount of detail. Now his pictures are so good that they hold up in side-by-side comparisons with Mars images from the Hubble Space Telescope. If you know where to look, you can even spot the giant volcano, Olympus Mons.

When I was growing up, even the two-hundred-inch giant at Palomar couldn’t come close to the details Don has recorded with a telescope just sixteen inches in diameter.

By nightfall the sky is mercifully clear, and Don sets up a ten-inch scope for me to use. The view is amazing: The planet’s disc is shaded with subtle, dusky patterns, far more detailed than any previous view of Mars I’ve ever seen. But when I attach the webcam and fire up the laptop, the live video that appears before me is almost too good to be true. Mars is so big, so clear, that I can even see individual dark spots that must be huge, windblown craters, trailing streaks of dark sand across the pink deserts. At the south pole, the retreating ice cap gleams brilliantly, with an outlier of frosted ground distinctly visible adjacent to the larger white mass.

Long into the night, and again the next, Don and I gather our photographic records of this unprecedented encounter, he at one telescope, I at the other. I feel lucky to be alive at this moment, suspended between the time of the Neanderthals and the twenty-third century, when some of our descendants will be on Mars, looking back at Earth. Right now I am face-to-face with Mars in a way I have never been, and never will be again. It is not the Mars of my childhood picture books, or the one revealed by an armada of space probes, or the trackless world where men and women will someday leave footprints. At this moment, I am exploring Mars, and 35 million miles doesn’t seem like much, not much at all.

Andrew Chaikin.
Andrew Chaikin.

Find out more about Chaikin’s books “A Passion for for Mars,” “A Man on the Moon” and more at Chaikin’s website.

One Reply to “The Night Mars Was Closest to Earth”

  1. Donald Parker was simply the best astro-photographer around (Nods toward Thierry) for many years. His work always leaned toward perfection.

    R.I.P Donald Parker and thank you…

Comments are closed.