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.

Mars-160211-Color

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.

Jupiter-160211-Comparison

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.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

The autumn of 1980 was perhaps one of the most difficult times of my life. My father died suddenly of a heart attack just about six weeks before my fourteenth birthday. One thing that helped pull me through that difficult time was Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos. It fostered my love of astronomy and set me on a course that would eventually earn me a degree in physics. Thirty-five years later, I’m now sharing Neil deGrasse Tyson’s updated Cosmos with my daughters. My youngest is the same age I was when I discovered Sagan’s original.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey_titlecard

Overall, I’ve been impressed with the series. I can nitpick some places where they’ve sacrificed precision in how a particular astronomical object or phenomena is depicted in the name of dramatic effect, but for the most part Tyson gets the important things right. The show has allowed me to better explain the importance of spectra in my work at Kitt Peak. I was delighted to see an episode featuring Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. I was able to discuss how they influenced both my work and how people they worked with directly inspired teachers of mine such as Emilia Belserene at Maria Mitchell Observatory. I also appreciated the discussion about how neutrinos can precede supernova explosions, though I noticed they managed to leave out mention of Stirling Colgate’s important contributions to that work.

Perhaps the most important thing about the series is that I see the same wonder on the faces of my daughters that I had when I watched Carl Sagan’s original series. My oldest daughter has already set her sights on a degree in mathematics and computer science. My youngest still has options wide open. I hold no strict expectation she’ll pursue a career in science, but I do expect she’ll come to respect the process of science and hold an appreciation of it no matter what she does.

Unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson, I hold no Ph.D. My career in astronomy diverged from a strictly academic path into more of an engineering and support path. Despite that, I feel it’s important to convey my love of science in classrooms as well as science fiction and steampunk conventions. In fact, I think there’s value in showing that you don’t need a Ph.D. to appreciate, use, and act on scientific discovery. Because of my interest in communicating about science, I’ve been paying close attention to Tyson’s presentations. He is a good, clear communicator and I’ve especially enjoyed seeing how he introduces subjects such as stellar spectroscopy, supernovae, and black holes.

In the most recent episode I watched, Tyson presented the sobering evidence for climate change. There’s been a lot of debate about it, but as he notes there’s well over a century of solid evidence that carbon dioxide is increasing and global temperatures are warming. He notes that weather is hard to predict and there are lots of minute variations. He demonstrated this by walking a dog. The dog goes all over the place, attracted by different things. However, climate is like the man holding the leash. There may be random variations, but there’s also an overall path. Although climate change is a sobering reality, I appreciated that Tyson showed that there is hope. We have to work hard and make solar and wind energy a reality and we need to do it much faster than we have been.

Now some will say addressing climate change is just too big a problem to address. I watched this episode after visiting New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina. Ten years ago, some people said rebuilding New Orleans was just too big a challenge, we should let the city go. Although Katrina still echoes in New Orleans, it’s returned to being a bright and vibrant city. Researchers at Tulane University are working on finding ways to restore the gulf coast and perhaps even find ways to make New Orleans much safer should another hurricane strike. We humans are amazing and we can solve the big problems when we set our minds to it.

I appreciate the effort Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane have put into bringing a new version of the show back. I hope it inspires a new generation to look at the world with wonder and to take the scientific process seriously.