Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mars - Still Curious

While NASA may be struggling to budget for future Mars exploration, as Astronomer-in-Chief of the Lost Pleiad Observatory, I remain curious.  In 154 days, on August 6th 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity, will touch down on the red planet and if all goes well begin to enthrall us with information and data.  While we wait for this exciting event, I continue to do what I can to keep an eye on Mars.

Last night I made my first decent sketch of Mars with my TEC 8 inch f/20 Maksutov Cassegrain.  I plan to write a review of this scope one day, but it is really a very specialized instrument that delivers excellent contrast, a large image scale, and sharp views.  It is well regarded as a high end planetary instrument.  The telescope is about 16 years old, and I believe that it is slightly out of collimation.  I do mean slightly, and I will likely wait until this summer when I am in Colorado to personally deliver the scope to TEC for a tune-up.  You can see from these pictures that despite its age, it is in good used shape.

Click to enlarge
Even with a waxing gibbous moon, last nights seeing conditions were slightly above average, with reasonably stable skies allowing me to use a magnification of 253x.  My sketch was completed at 0447 UT on March 4th (9:47 PM MST, March 3rd), with Mars central meridian at 315.8 degrees.  Currently at Magnitude -1.2, Mars is .6739 AU from earth, or 5 minutes and 36 seconds in light time.  It subtends an angle of only 13.89 arcseconds, which is not very large when it comes to discerning dusky low contrast surface features.

This by the way, is the allure of observing Mars.  It is the only planet in our solar system where we can directly observe the surface.  Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune...these planets only show us their cloud tops.  It is fun while sitting and observing Mars through a telescope to think back to the times when Astronomers such as Percival Lowell were making detailed visual observations of Mars and speculating on canals, water and plant life.  Without the benefit of missions to Mars to see the Martian environment up-close we would still be wondering.  Who knows what secrets Mars has yet to share with us?  I, for one, remain curious.

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