Mighty Mars and the Adirondacks
The summer of 2018 featured our fifteenth Adirondack Astronomy Retreat in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. It is also the last one that Wendee and I will host. Usually the dark and pristine sky from the AAR, as the retreat is known, provides brilliant walkways amongst the distant stars of the globular star cluster Messier 15, or the spiral arms of a galaxy all but lost in the vacuum of space and the mists of time.
But not this year. For the first time in fifteen years, Mars, relatively nearby, shone like a big red traffic light in the sky. All night long in the sky, during this particular summer, Mars ruled the night.
The last time Mars looked this good, it was the late summer of 2003. I looked through Obadiah, my six-inch diameter refractor, and I decided that this was by far the best view I have ever had of Mars. Just before going inside, however, I used the very same eyepiece to catch a view of Mars using Pegasus, my eight-inch reflector telescope I have had since 1964.
The view through Pegasus was even better! The dark feature called Syrtis Major, and its large complex of adjacent features, were razor sharp. One of the polar caps was clearly visible. From that night onwards, I knew that old Pegasus is optically the very best telescope I have.
Mars and I go way back. When I was a teenager I loved to imagine intelligent life there. That idea permanently left me during the summer of 1965, when the famous New York Times headline “Mars at Noon: No Canals” reported on the visit to Mars by the spacecraft Mariner IV. The idea that Mars harbored no life at all held sway until 1971, when Mariner IX revealed a much more complex surface there including Vales Marineris, Mars’s larger-than-life version of the Grand Canyon. As years went by, and automated spacecraft actually landed there, Mars became ever more intriguing.
In 1995 an ancient meteorite from Mars, found in Antarctica, displayed vague signs of microfossils that could have given proof that once upon a time, Mars harbored life. Although that conclusion was somewhat premature, it did provide an explosion of interest in the question of Martian bacterial life. This summer a large underground lake was found beneath Mars’s south pole. Since Earth has life in virtually every marine environment, it is possible, maybe even likely, that Mars offers the same conditions. With each spacecraft, each new observation, we get closer to detecting life on Mars.
In August, and I observed Mars through telescopes at our Adirondack Astronomy Retreat. Despite a planetwide dust storm rendering most surface details invisible, I did see both the north and south polar caps as well as some contrast features. We also had unfavorable weather this year at the retreat, with only about two clear hours during the week. But we did get to see Mars. As this lovely, brilliant red planet orbits the Sun, it offers us in the Adirondacks, and readers of these words in Arizona and around the Earth, an unparalleled view of an ancient and exquisite world.