Mars is an extraordinary planet , its textures and exquisite beauty have been brought to Earth by the images of HiRise on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter . Curiosity gives us a ground eye view as it drove through Gale crater and on to Mount Sharp. From Earth by eye Mars is but a tiny pink dot , in small telescopes it becomes a slightly larger pink dot . It is not easy to see detail on Mars for most people. My best views were in the South refractor at Dunsink Observatory and through a friend’s 16 inch Schmidt Cassegrain.The polar caps stood out in the 16 inch while the 11.75 inch objective at Dunsink showed a hint of dark areas on the predominantly rusty pink planet body. Of course Martian dust storms and the quality of our sky has a lot to do with seeing any detail at all.
Pointing out Mars in the sky for public groups and children’s groups is great fun however showing detail is challenging. Making a model could address this in a practical way,the planet would be touchable,immediately accessible.The disconnect between the pink dot in the sky and understanding some aspects of the planet would be firmly altered.
Making models has always brought me great satisfaction. A planet or comet in the room brings a tactile focus to public events or education in the classroom. A large polystyrene ball ( 3 foot diameter) to which I had given a previous existence as the moon , followed by it being the sun was then targeted to be reinvented as Mars. Not everyone would be lucky to get such a large ball , mine came from a display where it was originally a football in the window of a men’s fashion shop . I would suggest a 10 inch solid polystyrene ball if you decide to make your own Mars. One reason being a three-foot diameter ball is difficult to move around in a car and occasionally awkward to get into schools with no lifts.
Mars modelling began by painting the entire ball in a Martian rusty pink acrylic paint. I created a six-inch hole at the south pole to enable the planet to connect to a tripod . At first I was using a large format book with detailed images of the surface on each page to try to add accurate features to the model. This proved difficult as the ball was three-dimensional not flat and judging the spacing between characteristics was problematic. To the rescue came the very accurate real-time app Mars Globe for iPhone. The app allows Mars rotate in your hand so you can turn the south or north pole towards you in order to add them with accuracy to the model. You can turn off the night-time so you do not have to work in real-time on Mars. For both the north and south poles I used white acrylic paint applied thickly so it could be sculpted into its real shapes and layered levels. Mars Globe App
The app enabled me to carve Vallis Marinearis out of the ball with gusto and it was invaluable in placing Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris precisely. Hellas basin and several other impact craters joined the details on the surface of the planet. Also included are the landing sites of Phoenix, Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity to mention a few. Letting a child touch the base of Olympus Mons while explaining that the area is the size of the entire country of France brings a WOW!! every time.
It was opportune that the feature film The Martian was so accurate in its depiction of the planet. It was fun to add the journey taken by Watney. He sets out to seek Pathfinder from his landing site at Arcadia Planitia to enable him to venture onto his place of rescue at Schiaparelli crater. The many people who saw the movie enjoyed the application of the fictional journey to the surface of model.
The model has been very useful in classrooms and libraries all over Ireland . Children have the chance to put their fingers into the largest valley in the solar system and imagine what it must be like to look down into such a vast depth. The model allows me to expand on the missions that have landed on the surface enticing discussion and questions about the planet in general.
Recently I had the great pleasure to introduce Mars to the 5th Wicklow Cub Scouts directly from the harbour at Bray. We waved at Curiosity on Mars ( the pink dot) through boat masts clinking in the light breeze while handling Mars the model , learning from the kinesthetic experience under clear cold skies.
Here below is a small video showing my Mars Model