Pretty Planets All in a Row

This is a great time to view planets in the night sky. Four of the five naked-eye planets are visible right now and the fifth will be reappearing around the middle of the month. The night starts with Venus in the west, setting about two hours after sunset. It’s followed by Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Around August 20, Mercury should be visible in the eastern sky just before sunrise. What’s more, Mars is near opposition, its closest approach to the Earth. In fact, it’s the closest Mars has been to the Earth since 2003 and it’ll be 17 years before Mars is this close again.

Although I operate two large telescopes for the National Observatory, I don’t get many opportunities to look at just anything I’d like. Most of the time, if I want to look at planets, I need to do so with my old reliable 8-inch Celestron telescope in my backyard. Fortunately, because this planetary show is happening in the summer and in the early evening, it’s actually pretty comfortable to sit outside with the telescope. Also, ever since my wife bought me an Orion Starshoot camera, I’m able to share my views with you.

It’s monsoon season here in New Mexico, so that often means clouds in the evening. I missed getting any views of Venus, but I did manage to get images of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is especially fun, because they are also the planets the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus visits in my novel The Solar Sea. Each of the planet pictures below is shown at the same scale, so you get a sense for how big they appear relative to each other in my telescope’s eyepiece.

Mars is the planet furthest in the east and the last of the three I observed. It was a little disappointing in that I didn’t see a lot of surface features. You can see one of the polar caps and some contrast between dark and light areas. Some of this is no doubt due to a planet-wide dust storm which has been engulfing the planet for the last month. I gather that dust storm is finally beginning to die down, so there’s a chance we’ll get better views later in the month while Mars is still close. In a way, this was kind of cool because one of the dangers the crew of the Aristarchus faced in The Solar Sea was a dust storm, albeit a somewhat more localized one than the planet is currently experiencing.

Jupiter was quite lovely and helped to demonstrate that the seeing—the atmospheric stability—wasn’t the reason Mars was somewhat washed out. The very best view of Jupiter I’ve had is through the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. It’s one of the few telescopes of that class with an eyepiece adapter, so I have had occasion to actually go out in the dome and look at objects through the telescope. This is probably about the clearest I’ve seen the bands of Jupiter through my backyard telescope and I was pleased to see the great red spot. In The Solar Sea, the crew of the Aristarchus makes a point of flying over the red spot. It’s the largest, longest lasting storm in the solar system. If I went to Jupiter, I’d have to get close, though I wouldn’t want to be in it!

Of course, the real star of the show, as it often is, was Saturn. This is by far the best photograph I’ve ever taken of Saturn. I was pleased to capture Cassini’s Division in the rings along with a band on the planet’s surface. The only time I’ve ever seen Saturn better was when I had the opportunity to look through the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory a couple of years ago. As it turns out, Saturn is the object of the quest in The Solar Sea. Thomas Quinn, who designs and builds the Aristarchus, discovers powerful particles near Saturn that appear to be able to travel through time. It turns out there’s more to these particles than meets the eye!

The Solar Sea is on my mind not just because of these pretty planets all in a row. It turns out that as of last week, copies are now for sale at the Kitt Peak National Observatory visitor center, alongside the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. Be sure to look for a copy next time you visit. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a visit to Kitt Peak to pick up a copy of The Solar Sea, you can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Mars, Up Close and Personal

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.

Mars - June 6, 2016

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:

Mars-160211-Color

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.

The Solar Sea

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.