STARGAZING: Mars is close

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.

On clear evenings at the moment it is hard to miss that bright, reddish object in the southeast, and in the south at midnight.

It stands out from the stars not only in being very bright and with a very definite colour, but by shining like a lamp, not twinkling at all. Stars twinkle, planets usually donít and that reddish object is the planet Mars. We are in the process of overtaking Mars on the inside lane, and this time round, at its closest, the planet will be roughly 70 million kilometres away. Now is the time to get out the telescope and have a look.

Here in the Okanagan Valley the atmosphere is usually very unstable.

I had a look at Mars through a small telescope a few nights ago, with a magnification of 70 times. The planet is pretty low in the sky, which made the image a bit shimmery, thanks to the atmosphere, but the reddish-ochre disc was easily visible, together with a dark feature occasionally flashing into view. It is currently late summer in the Northern Hemisphere on Mars, and I could see no sign of the North Polar Ice Cap. It really is worth getting out a telescope.

Whenever looking at that mysterious and tantalizing red disc, the planet in the Solar System most like ours, it is hard not to think of H.G. Wells and his book War of the Worlds.

In the opening chapter of his book he describes the astronomer in the darkened observatory building, with the dome open, revealing a rectangle filled with stars, looking at that red disc, swimming against the blue. In the book the astronomer saw sudden flashes on the Red Planetís surface, marking the launch of spacecraft heading Earthward, carrying Martian invaders. Ever since then the idea of the inhabitants of cold, dry Mars, looking enviously at our warm, wet Earth, and planning to take over has triggered multiple books and movies. After you have been staring hard at that shimmering disc for a few minutes, and your eyes start getting a little tired, you might get glimpses of the famous ìcanalsî. These are purely an artifact of our brainsí desperate attempt to make sense out of what we see. Irregular patterns can get mentally joined up by straight, linear features. When you see these illusions, you won’t be the first.

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli looked at Mars through a telescope and saw linear features he called “channels.” Being Italian, he used the Italian word “canal.” Thus, in the English-speaking world, this word was mistranslated as meaning “canals,” which are things built by engineers, as opposed to “channels,” which may well be natural features.

Some astronomers got interested in the idea of Martians desperately managing the water resources of their dying world. One of these was Percival Lowell. In the late 19th Century he had made enough money to fund an observatory, which was set up on a hill near Flagstaff, Arizona. This he dedicated to the study of Mars. Over years he carefully mapped the canals. Even though there was a growing groundswell of scepticism from the scientific community, the idea of Martian canals still appeared in books as late as the 1960s.

The coup de grace to the canals happened in 1965, when the American spacecraft Mariner 4 did a close fly-by of Mars. There were no canals, no Martians — at least visible ones. The images showed a frigid desert, with an air pressure of only about 0.4 kilopascals (our atmospheric pressure is about 100), too low for liquid water. If itís clear, get out the telescope, enjoy a view of the most romantic planet in the Solar System. Look at that red disc — think of our years of fascination with the Red Planet. Think of Wells, Schiaparelli and Lowell and look for the canals.

After sunset Jupiter is high in the southwest, and Mars and Saturn lie in the southeast. Mars is the bright one; Saturn is fainter and to Mars left. The Moon will be New on the June 4.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.