Mars - Here We Come

Mars - Here We Come

Our near neighbour Mars (The Rusty Planet) a rich ochre colour very similar to our countries (Australia) west coast and interior in colour and never very large in the eyepiece when viewed from Earth.

MARS – Here We Come???

Our near neighbour Mars (The Rusty Planet) a rich ochre colour very similar to our countries (Australia) west coast and interior in colour and never very large in the eyepiece when viewed from Earth.  Best at times like now with opposition just past.  Its size varies over the years from around 4 arc/sec to 25 arc/sec at its closest approach to our home world for this year 2010.  In January it achieved something like 14.5 arc/sec angular diameter and -2.8 mag.

The little planet begins its celestial show low in the eastern sky and does its ‘jitter bug’ journey across the heavens over a few months only to

disappear into the suns glare for a further couple of months from which it reappears to commence the show all over again.  It’s at present around half way through this years showing – so have a look!!!

To view this little red dancer (I like that bit) you really need a telescope of fair aperture (although it can be seen in smaller telescopes at this particular time) say refractors of 80 to 100mm or reflectors of around 200-254mm and stick with the task at hand, a quick view is never any good.  Remember the longer you look the better it gets so try a few different powers (eyepieces) and a filter or two (2).  Oh, alright!  This planet can be seen in smaller scopes of around the 60mm mark but be a devil and purchase a really good scope – one that is not too small for dad and the kids can grow into.

Now, back to the story!  You can follow his (and I say ‘His’ because after all we are talking about a planet named after the Roman God of War!) journey all the way from east to west and from his first appearance size which is usually smallish to a more respectable (for this year) 14.5 arc/sec at a mean opposition distance of 78 million klms.  If you get lucky with the ‘seeing’ conditions or have a really good dark site (a rare commodity) or both Ha, Ha, you will see Mars as you might see the Moon ‘unaided’ although it is somewhat harder to see detail on the Red Planet at the much greater distance.  Maybe now, just after opposition is a good time, so once again take a peek!

Mars has light and dark areas similar to the Moon (Lunar surface) at first glance, in fact the astronomers of yesteryear thought these dark places to be areas of vegetation (forest even) when they are really rough terrain – rocks etc.!

This planet, as with Venus was of coarse known to the early astronomers (along with Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn) and to add to the knowledge already at hand a large body of visual and mathematical material was pulled together by one ‘Tycho Brahe’ (1456-1601) over some 25-30 years (a life time in those days) in an attempt to work out the real motion of the planets.  He however, after being unwell for some time handed the project over to a much younger ‘Johannes Kepler’ (1571-1630) who on ‘Tycho’s’ death continued the work for the better part of a decade.  He eventually produced his three (3) Laws of Planetary Motion which allowed him to predict the positions of the planets with a greater degree of accuracy and he became the imperial mathematician after ‘Tycho Brahe’ died, a position held by ‘Brahe’ for some time.  This early work on the planets and planetary motion of course, is still used today although much more has been done.  Obviously to get a space probe or anything else for that matter to a planet or asteroid in our Solar System you have to know where it will be when the probe gets there and when the optimum time for lift-off is to achieve the shortest route.

‘Copernicus’ had in 1473 suggested that the Sun lay at the centre of our Solar System, not Earth and this was to be backed up later by ‘Brahe’, ‘Kepler’ and ‘Galileo’.  ‘Kepler’ did however eventually make all the proper connections and set in motion principles that ‘Isaac Newton’ would form into the beginning of modern science.  ‘Tycho Brahe’, it is worthy of note did all his work with the naked eye as the telescope was still some years off and in fact wouldn’t be discovered until ‘Hans Lippershey’ did that deed in 1608.  I should also mention that even though the early astronomer/mathematicians (pre Copernicus) knew of the planets out as far as Saturn they still worked on the incorrect notion that the planets all revolved around Earth which suited the church’s beliefs at that time.  This line of thought was known as the ‘Ptolemy’ system and was to persist for some 1500 years.  All four (4) of the previously mentioned early astronomers, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo had a hand in the dismantling of the work or at least the ideas that ‘Claudius Ptolemaeus’ had published in around 140 AD.  Galileo in fact, was sentenced to a life under house arrest for his support of the ‘Copernican Model’.  Ptolemy may not have got it all correct with the sun and planets but I believe he did teach us how to ask the right questions and the importance of mathematics.  Everything we know has some sort of maths equation – doesn’t it!  We are still using this work as we prepare our inevitable trip across the void to the Red Planet thousands of miles distant, it is our destiny to go forward so what are we doing!!

So, moving onto just over 100 years ago when the ‘Wright Bros’ had their first flight and believe me things have moved along since then with man actually landing on the Moon several times.  There’s been Robotic and unmanned missions to Venus and Mars with space probes of some description going to nearly all the other planets with the exception of Pluto and that task is in hand with ‘New Horizons’ mission due there in 2015, although there has been distant flybys of Pluto by the Voyager Space Craft some years ago.  Even with all the activity to date one still gets the impression that we are dragging our feet – or at least spending too much money and time going over old ground.

There is only so much a machine, no matter how complex can do from its ‘lofty perch’ hundreds if not thousands of kilometres above its objective.  Resolution is getting better at about the same speed as our weather is getting worse and I’m out on a limb here as even that has its sceptics.  One lot of figures produced by an international survey group have the ‘people who matter’ divided up with 98% for Global Weather change (all things, not just ‘Warming’) and just 2% against.  Now I realise there are several trains of thought on this topic (weather change) some for and some against so with that in mind there is nothing known to man that settles ‘dilemma’ like a good old debate and that can only be healthy, I guess!  So the formula seems to be, discuss the problem or what ever it may be and then act on it.  If we just stick our heads in the sand like the proverbial Ostrich we’ll only get sand in our eyes, which is the usual outcome of such action.  Science however needs to have a fair measure of sceptics for without them the questions may not be asked and the answers really not needed.

No one really believes at this early stage that Mars or even the Moon for that matter is the answer to our population problems in the short term and I’ve got to suggest that population wise we haven’t even started yet.  However they (Mars & Moon) could be very important ‘stepping stones’ or ‘stepping of places’ for those far off missions to destinations both in and beyond our Solar system in the medium to far future unless of course we can pull ‘Worm Hole’ travel technology out of the ‘magic mathematics’ bag as some of our best Sci-Fi writers predict (loosely)!

Hey!  I reckon some of the Sci-Fi stuff isn’t too far from the money and with a little imagination (alright a lot) it gives us some hope for our future.

You know Mars has an atmosphere that doesn’t quite suit our needs but we can get over that with closed facilities etc.  The surface is in fact reasonable soil and the oceans of ice are in fact frozen water so with a little green housing of our own (and lets face it we are getting better at that all the time) we may make portions of the planet liveable.  It was even suggested some time ago (in one of the astronomy magazines) that maybe we could ‘spot’ warm portions of the planet on which we wished to live or settle with huge reflectors suspended (Geo-station) in space to reflect the suns warmth down to the surface while allowing the harmful rays to pass through, interesting idea eh!

One really good example for the argument of man versus machine (oh, sorry ‘Debate’) took place only recently (2008) when ‘Phoenix’ landed on Mars after a trip of 675 million klms and 9 ½ months.  Her mission was roughly to land in the North Polar Region on Mars and to sample and test the ice that previous missions had already found.  The depth etc. was an unknown as was the composition of the ice.  We needed to know if there were any signs of either past or indeed present ‘Microbe’ style life or if the planet had ever got started down the trail to life as we know it.

Well the Phoenix found ice rather by serendipitous accident when the exhaust of the descent engines blew away a few centimetres of Martian soil to reveal that in fact the craft was sitting on ice.  Other tasks were to test soil samples, log temperatures and monitor weather in general as well as ‘image’ its surrounds.  We need to know if Mars has any secrets I guess (especially nasty ones) other than her fierce winds and dust storms.  The dust on Mars makes our earthly dust particles look like rocks in comparison, anything up to 50 times finer and that would be a major problem for filters and the like I guess!  ‘Phoenix’ has completed her mission now (2010) and awaits our arrival in the future.

I guess my feelings are that man could do all those tasks with near instant understanding and move on to do a host of other projects while a mechanical probe was getting started.  I realize the needs and limitations of ‘man’ as well as the next fellow but we can and will get over problems (if we get on with it) as they arise with practical practice and we’ve done most of it before for trips to the lunar surface its just a whole lot further with its own ‘unique’ problems such as longer exposure to cosmic radiation and time spent enroute.  We can and must get over these hurdles.

The various space agencies have been sending probes or if you like ‘missions’ to Mars since the 1960’s and there are still planned missions for the future – come on fellas!  Put someone on board the thing!!!  It does not ‘beggar’ belief to think that maybe astronauts could have saved half of the unmanned missions (had we carried on from the Moon landing days) thus cutting expense that could have been used to prepare for his major assault on Mars especially since the finding of ‘water ice’ on the Moon (now I realize the latter was only recently and at this stage the quantity is unknown) although I must concede that man landed on the Moon’s surface several times and did not come up ‘wet’.

Mars (as I ramble along) passed opposition in January of 2010 at a lovely -1.3mag.  Opposition is when a planet is closest to Earth with the Earth between it and the sun.  It’s a great time to view Mars (or any other planet) as its close proximity to us enables us to see the surface features better.  I still see it as a red ‘blob’ but others enjoy the vista I suppose.  For those persons interested there is some good material in the January issue of AS&T magazine 2010.  To view the planet now (February 2010) I suggest a good dark site with open horizons and wait until Mars clears the pollution layer (as far as that is possible) at low elevations its at its best about half way between 0o and the zenith at around 9.00pm (AEST) in North Queensland, Australia.  You need to check ‘stats’ in your area.

We see it mid evening in the north (and on then through the night) at about 75o and as Mars goes it’s quite beautiful, I guess!  I’ve already referred to Mars as the ‘Red Planet’ or ‘Rusty Planet’ and with good reason.  When we look at Mars we see a red through to orange ball.  This reddish appearance comes from ‘Iron Oxide’ (Hematite) that is prevalent on the surface of the planet (I’m not sure why but probably due to the lack of surface water-rain etc!).  The soil on Mars however is surprisingly fertile and would support Earth type plants under controlled conditions.  Present are nutrients such as Chloride, Sodium, Potassium and Magnesium although the soil samples taken so far reveal a slight leaning toward the alkaline.

Water cannot exist on the Martian surface for very long as it evaporates and is lost to space but ‘water-ice’ is a different matter altogether.  There is heaps of the stuff just below the surface at both Polar Regions and on out to approximately 60o latitude in other frozen forms such as Permafrost.

Radar has been used by agencies such as ‘NASA’ to establish how much water may be present as ‘ice’ and it is now thought that if melted the whole planets surface would be covered by around 11metres.  It’s a curious reality I guess but most people don’t know that radar finds ‘water’ by showing nothing.  To qualify that I mean it will show the top soil, dust, rocks etc, then in Mars case nothing (a blank layer) and then on to more rock or whatever.  The water layer (or ice in this case) does not show up on the read out like other materials.

Further radar work was undertaken by ‘Mars Express’ and the ‘MRO’ (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) from 2005 through to 2008.  We’ve already covered work done by ‘Phoenix Mars Lander’ in July of 2008.

All of this work commenced in 1965 when ‘Mariner 4’ did a fly-by of Mars and the thought that liquid water may exist was bought about by light and dark patches seen in polar regions that were thought to be ‘seas’.  This however proved to be wrong and was put down to optical illusion (see you must leave the ‘Bourbon’ till after work).

The planet has 2 Moons “Deimos and ‘Phobos’ and a Trojan Asteroid called ‘5261 Eureka’ that is not very often mentioned.  The two (2) moons, one might add are (or maybe) only captured asteroids with very irregular surface features.

Mars has a magnitude that can reach -3 (or really close) and is only second to ‘Venus’ although ‘Jupiter’ can give the impression of being brighter to the naked eye because it has its brightness spread over a larger area thus making it appear brighter.

Our subject has a few stand-out features with more being revealed all the time.  The main ones at this tome are a huge volcano known as ‘Olympus Mons’ or ‘Mount Olympus’ which is a staggering 27klm in height and could be the largest in our Solar System.  I suppose a good reference would be the height of ‘Mt Everest’ here on Earth which reaches 8.8klm.

Another stand-out feature on the Martian landscape is a huge canyon the like of which is not seen on our planet and I speak of the ‘Valles Marineris’.  This enormous valley with a depth of 7-7½klms and a length of 4,000klms stretches across about one fifth of the surface of Mars.  You know the Grand Canyon is a ditch in comparison with a depth of 2klm and length of 500klm (approx.).  This huge canyon came about or was formed by the swelling of the crust in that area similar to a crack in a loaf of bread, for want of a better example.

The Bombardment Periods in our Solar System that really hammered our Moon didn’t spare Mars either.  Those high speed projectiles in the form of left over Asteroids, Comets etc. left and estimated 43,000 impact craters with a diameter of around 5klms and above with an unknown number covered by things like wind, erosion and maybe water movement very early on, (to be verified at a later date).  There is some evidence pointing to a crater 10,000 odd kilometres wide which could have been made by an object half the size of the Moon.  If this crater is eventually given fact status it will also be the largest crater thus far found in our Solar System.

Mars in its orbit gets as close to us at 78 million klms on average at opposition but came to a very close 55 million klms in 2003.  I’ve stated magnitude before but once again Mar’s magnitude ranges between +1.8 at conjunction to a high of -3 (almost).  The next ‘good’ time will be when Mars again reaches opposition in 2012 around early March.  The last time Mars came really close like 55 million klms was 60,000 years ago in around 57,617 BC (‘Wow’) and the next time will be approximately 2287 AD  although there are some highlights in between (thank goodness for that, it’s a long time between drinks, eh!!!)

There have been many probes and such sent to or past Mars over the years but probably the best known other than ‘Phoenix’ would be the two Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit’ and ‘Opportunity’ (well there the ones that stick in modern memories amongst the computer games and mobile phone numbers etc) launched by NASA in 2003.  They both arrived and deployed safely in January, 2004 and have vastly outlived their expected life spans with the aid of Martian whirlwinds and wind storms that kept their solar panels clean and operative.  I believe it is ‘Spirit’ that has finally come to the end of its rope after being bogged down in loose soil.  It now sits in that one spot but can still contribute as an observatory by taking high resolution images of its surrounds and help to determine what kind of core Mars possesses.

We must now sit back and wait for the next mission to blast off from Earth which I believe could be a bigger version of the ‘Rovers’ in 2011 – if only we could hibernate between shots, eh!  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is still up there to show the way and take images for us so all is not yet lost but with ‘NASA’ under budgetary restraints anything could happen – or not!

Remember the escape velocity from Earth is around 11.5klm/sec compared to the Moon at 2.5klm/sec and Mars comes in at about 5.7 or so.  I’ll leave you to figure out the best place to launch from.

That’s it folks, I’ve rambles on enough so I’ll leave you for this time.

Hope you have a good read.

See you out there one dark night.