Journey to the Red Planet 

Astronomy Club hosts Mars viewing, called the best in thousands of years

WHAT: Mars Watch

WHERE: Rainbow Park

WHEN: Aug. 27, starting 7:30 p.m.

When an Italian astronomer by the name of Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered straight canals on the surface of mars back in 1877, he set in motion a debate over the existence of life on Mars that still continues today. No fewer than three spacecraft, one orbiter and two probes are currently on their way to the Red Planet to help answer this question.

By now they are looking for traces of microbial life that may have existed thousands of years ago on Mars, yet the search goes on – as does our fascination with our nearest celestial neighbour. Where would science fiction be without Mars?

For local astronomer John Nemy of the Pacific Observatory and the Whistler Astronomy Club, the real appeal of Mars isn’t canals or alien life, but rather a clear view of a distant planet.

"Mars is the only planet where you can actually see the surface in any detail," he said. "On Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, that kind of detail is obscured by the clouds."

On a recent trip to Manning Park Nemy spotted distinct mountains on the surface of Mars, the largest mountains to be found in our solar system.

"Looking through the score until 5:30 in the morning, you could see everything – the polar ice caps, little cloud formations moving over the planet, the red dusty plains with huge mountains – and it’s still over 55 million kilometres from earth."

This Aug. 27, the orbits or Earth and Mars will bring our two planets closer than they have been for almost 75,000 years.

To celebrate this unique celestial event, and get a closer look at our closest neighbour, the Whistler Astronomy Club is hosting a free Mars Watch night at Rainbow Park with at least three big telescopes, including Nemy’s own 16-inch reflector telescope.

The last Astronomy Club event, held on International Astronomy Day in May, brought a couple of hundred people to Spruce Grove for a presentation by Nemy and his partner Carol Legate, followed by some star and galaxy gazing outside.

Mars can be viewed at sundown, but Nemy hopes people will stick around until midnight when the planet will be its very clearest.

"Mars is a really small planet, only about half the diameter of Earth, which can make it hard to see details," he explained. "To see those details you need an opposition and it needs to be really high in the sky. On Aug. 27, it will be as high as in gets at midnight, and as close as it gets."

The Earth and Mars are on different elliptical orbits of the sun. The Earth travels around the Sun in 365 days, and Mars takes 687 days. An opposition occurs when the Earth catches up to Mars in its orbit and the Sun, Earth and Mars are lined up. This happens every 26 months, and because our orbits are elliptical instead of round, the distance between the two planets is different every time.

In this particular opposition on Aug. 27, the planets will be 55 million kilometres apart, and Mars will be facing the sun, giving astronomers a bright view of the face of Mars. It’s also brighter to the naked eye, a reddish light appearing to the Southeast.

When Mars is behind us or ahead of us in orbit, part of the planet is in shadow, and the view isn’t as bright.

If the event is rained out on Wednesday, Aug. 27, Nemy and Legate will hold their Mars watch the following night on Thursday. People are welcome to bring their own telescopes along, as even smaller scopes should be able to spot the distinctive polar caps of Mars, which the scientists believe may contain frozen water.

For more information, visit the Pacific Observatory at www.nemy.com.

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