Elusive Mars and Majestic Jupiter

The weather in the Southwest has dried out and warmed up, which inspired another session in the back yard with my Celestron 8-inch telescope and Orion StarShoot USB Camera. My primary hope was to capture Mars. Now Mars is a notoriously difficult target for a small telescope. It’s an orb in slightly varying shades of red. To see any detail at all is a challenge. In the book Cosmos, Carl Sagan described Percival Lowell’s challenges observing Mars:

    Observations of this sort are not easy. You put in long hours at the telescope in the chill of the early morning. Often the seeing is poor and the image of Mars blurs and distorts. Then you must ignore what you have seen. Occasionally the image steadies and the features of the planet flash out momentarily, marvelously.

I couldn’t say it better myself. I watched the planet for several minutes. Every now and then I’d see the polar cap appear and occasionally a dark feature would join it. I put in my video camera and most frames came out as red blurs, though a few showed a hint of structure. I used the RegiStax 6 package to combine the images and work to bring out the structures and was able to get this image.


When I first saw the images, I thought the telescope was slightly out of focus because Mars was slightly oblong. However, checking Sky and Telescope magazine, it turns out that the relative positions the planets mean Mars is in a slightly gibbous phase right now. We actually can see the terminator from Martian day to night. Perhaps it’s because this little desert world is at once similar to ours but challenging to really resolve well that we find it so fascinating.

Looking at it through the telescope and even on the video screen, I thought I could convince myself that I saw linear structures like canals. Even without canals, a visit would be fascinating and I’ve imagined going there in my fiction. In my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren” which appears in The Martian Anthology, I imagine miners on Mars actually finding life deep underground. In my novel The Solar Sea, the solar sail Aristarchus stops by the planet and a landing party visits the summit of Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system. In the novel, the astronauts continue on to Jupiter and so did I. Here are images of Jupiter without a filter and through a blue filter.


The exciting part of this image is that you can see the Great Red Spot, the solar system’s longest lasting storm, in the upper brown belt near the planet’s center. It’s a bit faint, elusive like Mars, but it’s a little more apparent in the blue filter.

Even without a telescope, it’s worth stepping out the door if you happen to be up a little before sunrise. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all visible without a telescope. In fact, with a sufficiently large telescope, you would find Pluto not far from Mercury and Venus right now. I enjoy going out and looking even though my “day” job involves long hours with the telescope. It helps to make a personal connection to those objects in the sky which inspire us and it gives me the opportunity to share those wonders with my family.

8 comments on “Elusive Mars and Majestic Jupiter

  1. Gary Davis says:


    Hi. Thanks for the nice planetary pictures. The blue Jupiter photo is very pretty.

    I wonder what that apparent red band is across the upper half of the Mars photo. Maybe a dust storm? It would seem to me that the Martian atmosphere is too thin, unlike Jupiter, to have a lot of bands in it. And the red band looks too big to be a “canal”, of course!

    Best wishes——-Gary

    • You’re welcome, Gary. Yes, the dark area on the upper right would either be a dust storm or dark rock. I wasn’t able to find a good image that showed Mars as it would be oriented relative to us at that specific time, so hard to distinguish which. The contrast is up pretty high on that image. Viewing in real-time the “smudge” wasn’t much darker than the planet itself. It’s worth noting that I think the smudge appears a little elongated because the planet straddles a couple of pixels on the camera and the pixel gap was enhanced a bit in image processing.

  2. ericamilesx says:

    “Fascinating!” as Mr. Spock would say on Star Trek.

  3. Great photos! Decades ago, I had personal access to an 8 inch Celestron with Nikon camera attached, but I never recorded images of Jupiter or Mars with that amount of detail.

    • Thank you! Yeah, I’m really impressed with this little camera, especially given its affordable price. Frame stacking also avoids having to have perfect polar alignment, which can be tricky in a telescope that doesn’t have a permanent pier, since the software accounts for the drift.

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