Cloudy Mars pass does not obscure excitement

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsNine-year-old Ewan Lalonde of London examines a model of Mars and its two moons at the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory Tuesday night. Although clouds obscured a viewing of Mars at its closest point to Earth, about 100 budding astronomers visited the observatory and heard presentations from Western space and planetary experts.

Nine-year-old Ewan Lalonde knew it would be a long shot to spot any planet above the cloud cover. But he and his mother Vanessa were still first in line, an hour before doors opened for a near-Mars experience Tuesday night at Western’s observatory.

NASA // Special to Western NewsMars is at its nearest point to Earth and looks larger than it will look until 2035. This image is from NASA’s Hubble telescope on July 18, 2018.

The Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory had opened for a rare mid-week public viewing to provide visitors an even rarer opportunity to see Mars at a point closer to Earth than it will be until 2035. With the sun opposite both the Red Planet and ours now, Mars is about 57.6-million kilometres from Earth and brightly visible in the night sky.

But last night, the nearer-to-Earth clouds got in the way.

Virtually all the 100 or so visitors stayed for talks by observatory director Jan Cami, and Mars mapper Livio Tornabene, both professors in the Western’s Department of Physics and the Centre for Planetary and Space Exploration.

Young Ewan, a keen observer of objects both microscopic and telescopic, even wore a space-themed T-shirt for the occasion.

“I like to learn what’s on planets and learn about new things being discovered,” he said.

His family rented a telescope for his most recent birthday so he could view the stars at the dark-sky area near Fingal, southwest of London.

With Mars a no-show Tuesday, he was left to speculate what might yet be found on the planet. “There’s a possibility life on Mars could exist because there’s ice on Mars and maybe water – but I don’t know if there’s life on Mars or not.”

Scientists from the European Space Union said last week they had discovered, with penetrating radar technology, a lake of water below the surface.

Tornabene said there is still some skepticism because only one of the two radar devices detected it and because it was found at one of the poles that would be unlikely to have liquids.

“It smells fishy to me and to some of my other colleagues who study Mars for a living,” Tornabene said.

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsNine-year-old Ewan Lalonde of London examines a model of the Earth in orbit at the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory Tuesday night. Although clouds obscured a viewing of Mars at its closest point to Earth, about 100 budding astronomers visited the observatory and heard presentations from Western space and planetary experts.

That said, he is keen to keep learning more through the HiRISE mapping project he heads here.

Some Mars mapping is impeded now because a planet-wide dust storm, a red cloud like a blizzard of red talcum powder, is obscuring many surface features.

The Mars year, the time it takes for one full rotation around the sun, is equivalent to two Earth years, which also means the two planets line up only every other year. Their relative distance from each other and the sun also changes, with the Mars orbit being more elliptical than Earth’s.

The net effect is that Mars can be as far from Earth as 400 million kilometres, or as ‘close’ as 54.6 million kilometres.

At its current distance, it now appears at 94 per cent of its possible size and looks almost two times larger and five times brighter than it did in 2012, Cami said.

The observatory is open for free viewing to the public on Saturday nights throughout the summer and, with more than 30 other special events plus rentals and tours, it operates for about 120 nights every year, Cami said.

Most public viewing nights also include information talks for amateur and seasoned astronomers alike. The large telescope is a popular attraction, and members of the London chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada add their telescopes and expertise to the experience.

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Missed it once? Don’t miss it twice.

Another public viewing event at the observatory takes place on Saturday night and, weather permitting, Mars will appear virtually as large and as bright as it would have appeared on Tuesday.

While Tuesday was ‘peak Mars’, it will be only slightly farther from Earth all this week. Mars will be visible to the naked eye, or through telescopes at the Cronyn Observatory starting at dusk on Saturday. Look for it, glowing orange-red, in the eastern sky as the sun sets in the west