Although there has been plenty of moonlight to go around and frigid temperatures in many parts of the world, that’s not going to stop what’s happening in the sky. Not only is Mars back on the observing scene, but it’s also getting close enough that details are becoming more and more clear. Would a little frost have stopped Percival Lowell? Darn right it wouldn’t…. And it hasn’t stopped John Chumack either.
“Despite the brutally cold weather last night, I decided to brave it for a couple of hours in my back yard to capture Mars.” said John, “Mars is looking pretty nice and growing fast as it get closest and brightest at the end of this month. Currently it is 97% lit. This is my first attempt this opposition with a DMK firewire camera and 10″ Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope.”
Although John claims “poor seeing”, using a camera helps to even the odds and his image reveals some outstanding details such as the North Polar Ice Cap (top), Acidalia Planitia (top center), Terra Meridiana (lower right), and Valles Marineris (lower left). For sharp-eyed observers, you can even spot some bright fluffy clouds forming on the far left limb and a small hint of a Southern Polar Cap, too. “Mars is only 12.87 arc seconds across” says Chumack, “Still small and a bit of a challenge to get details in less than good seeing.”
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So why encourage you to start your observations of Mars when it’s difficult? Because not everyone everywhere is enjoying winter’s grip and the more you practice, the better you can train your eye to catch fine details. When a planetary observer or photographer mentions “poor seeing” conditions, it doesn’t necessarily mean clouds as much as it means an unstable atmosphere which causes the view to swim, or be difficult to bring into focus. You may find that a hazy night offers great stability, while a very clear one doesn’t! It’s all in chance, and you won’t know what your chances are unless you take them. Right now Mars is well positioned in Leo and an easy catch for even those who are just beginning in astronomy.
To help you understand what you are seeing, you’ll need to know which side of Mars you’re looking at at any given time. When it comes to map generation, no one does it finer than Sky & Telescope Magazine and their Mars Profiler page which will help you pinpoint what’s visible at the time and date you’re viewing. While at first you may only see a small orange dot with a few dark markings, the key is not to give up… You don’t need a camera to see details, only patience. It may take a few seconds, or several minutes before a moment of clarity and stability arrives, but when it does you will pick up a detail that you didn’t notice at first glance. It may be a polar cap, or dark wedge of a surface feature… But they will appear. A great way to help train your eyes to catch these types of details is to sketch what you are seeing. Don’t worry! No one will be around to grade your drawings. By focusing your attention and recording it on paper, you’ll soon find that you’re observing a lot more than you ever thought you could!
Move over, Percival… Mars is back and so are we.