Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Amazing Mars!

So it’s official. The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is no longer a rover. It’s now slated for more ‘in situ’ science.

This was the announcement made by NASA this week, oddly enough at the same time that Mars makes its closest approach to Earth – if you consider 99 million miles “close” – today (Wednesday, Jan. 27) and the 29th is when Mars is officially at “opposition,” rising opposite the setting sun in the sky.

I’ve always been fascinated by Mars. There’s just something about it. It has a certain “allure” that no other planet seems to have. But what is it about this tiny little world that’s only twice the size of our moon?

I mean, c’mon! Here’s the only planet in our solar system for which we can get a “reasonably” clear view of its solid surface. It’s only visible once every two years as we catch up to it in our respective orbits of the sun. And it has such an interesting ochre colour.

So a week ago, I actually had a clear enough night to not only take the scope and try and view Mars, but also attempt to image it using a lunar and planetary imager. I’ll admit, my images weren’t nearly as crisp and detailed as those by others more skilled and experienced at imaging. But it was fun nonetheless and one quickly gets an idea how the minds of some observers and writers have been attracted to this distant, tiny little globe.

Consider what happened when the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who, during Mars’ opposition in 1877, while observing Mars in Brera, Italy thought he noticed “linear” features he called “canali” or “channels” in Italian. However, this observation set off a firestorm in the public’s imagination, particularly in the mind of businessman and astronomer Percival Lowell who became convinced they were actually “channels” built by a dying civilization to carry water from their melting poles to the equatorial regions.

Now, in all the years I’ve actually been able to look at Mars through a telescope, I’ve never seen hint of “channels.” However, I didn’t have a telescope like Lowell built to observed these “cannals” – a 24-inch Alvin Clarke refractor that is still in service today. Ironically, it has since been suggested that what Lowell was actually seeing were shadows of his the veins in his eye’s own retina.

The belief in Martians inspired a lot of literature including Edgar Rice Burroughs and his fictitious Mars adventurer John Carter and the Martian Barsoomians, as well as Ray Bradbury with his book The Martian Chronicles.

Space probes from the late 1960s to now have given us ever more evolved views of what Mars really is like and, though there are no martians wandering around (Weekly World News notwithstanding), it has proven a stunningly dynamic world. It’s one that has evolved from what might have briefly been analogous to Earth to a frozen wasteland with subtle hints that water might still exist. Even rocks sent to Earth from Mars, courtesy of a few really big impacts have given us indications that maybe…just maybe…Mars isn’t as dead as we thought it was. One of the best series I’ve read that reflects some of this new understanding of Mars is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series that chronicles the exploration and colonization of Mars. Not only are the characters rich in personality and humanity, the sweeping vistas and cutting-edge science are stunning!

But hey! What’s not to love about Mars?!

Of course, over the past couple of “oppositions” of Mars, the weather has been anything but cooperative and that love has been largely unrequited. In fact, last time it came around, I didn’t get a single glimpse of it. Now, clouds are still calling a halt to most plans to observe Mars.

So keep your fingers crossed that the weather may actually begin to cooperate and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get more chances to marvel at this distant, ochre world.

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