On May 30, 2016, the planet Mars reached the point in its orbit where it’s closest to Earth. The two planets were 46.8 million miles apart. In about a week, Mars will grow noticeably fainter as the planets move away from each other. Earlier this week, on the night of June 6, I took advantage of the close approach to get a nice image of the red planet.
Between work, travel, and weather, this was my first opportunity to take advantage of the close approach with my 8-inch Celestron Telescope. The new image is noticeably improved over my February 11 photo taken with the same telescope and camera and displayed at the same scale:
This really illustrates why close approaches have been so important to understanding Mars. The improved resolution is breathtaking. During the close approach of Mars in the fall of 1877, Asaph Hall at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the red planet’s two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. That same close approach unfortunately led Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli to declare the existence of channels or even canals on Mars. American scholar Percival Lowell took the idea and ran with it, making a career of publishing studies of Martian canals and using them as proof of Martian life.
Lowell’s enthusiasm prompted biologist Alfred Russel Wallace to seriously consider the conditions necessary for extraterrestrial life. In the process, he made some of the first calculations about the temperature on Mars based on its distance from the sun. He also calculated how big the canals would have to be so they could be seen from Earth. The canals would literally have to be miles wide, delivering water from tiny polar caps. As Wallace said, “Any attempt to make that scanty surplus, by means of overflowing canals, travel across the equator in to the opposite hemisphere, through such a terrible desert region and exposed to such a cloudless sky as Mr. Lowell describes, would be the work of a body of madmen rather than intelligent beings.”
What I like about this story is that although Lowell misinterpreted what he saw, his observations prompted critical thinking and led to a whole body of research. The modern Search for Extra-Terrestrial Inteligence, most certainly owes its existence to Alfred Russel Wallace pondering whether or not Martians really could build canals as Lowell claimed.
Whether there are people on Mars or not, the planet captivates me and many other people. I’m not sure whether it’s the desert vistas, the prospect of a canyon that dwarfs the Grand Canyon, or a mountain that dwarfs Everest. Perhaps its as simple as knowing that when Mars is at closest approach, it comes tantalizingly close to revealing its secrets even in an 8-inch telescope as in the photo above.
I’ve been compelled to write about Mars on several occasions. The planet plays a prominent role in my novel The Solar Sea which you can read about at TheSolarSea.com. While there, you can check out some cool illustrations by Laura Givens and download a free reading guide. Also, my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren” appears in The Martian Anthology edited by David B. Riley. You can check it out at Amazon.com.
Although Percival Lowell was wrong about Martian canals, his publications on the subject and the discussions that ensued helped to assure that Mars would be a real place in people’s imaginations in the years that followed. In much the same way, Kepler Project Scientist Steve Howell and I want to start viewing the planets discovered by the Kepler Space Probe with a similar sense of place. Because of that, we’ll start reading for the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys on Wednesday, June 15. Interested writers should click here for the guidelines.
If you missed Mars’s close approach this time around, despair not! Mars will make an even closer approach around the end of July 2018. At that point it will only be 35.8 million miles from Earth and appear about a 30% larger than it did this year. I hope to be out with my telescope and camera to try to get another image of our fascinating planetary neighbor.