Mars in 2003 to 2004


Introduction

On August 27th 2003 Mars came into line with the Earth opposite the sun, and only one day away from Mars' closest approach to the Sun. Mars comes into opposition to the Sun every 2 years 50 days on average, but owing to its orbit being noticably elliptical, oppositions run in a cycle from close to further and back again over 15 to 17 years. However, the coinciding of opposition and perihelion brings Mars closer to the Earth than at any time in the last 60,000 years. Read here for the full story.

Mars presents a brilliant orange spectacle low in the south around the midnight hours during August and September. It is unfortunate for UK observers that the closest oppositions occur with Mars far south of the celestial equator but despite the low altitude the planet makes an impressive sight, being brighter than any other star or planet in the night sky.

For viewing with my main 8-inch telescope from the westward facing patio it is only after oppostion that Mars comes into its own for viewing at a relatively sociable hour, i.e. before midnight. This works to the advantage of ordinary viewing too - although Mars starts to fade from its maximum brightness this is compensated for during September by its earlier rising so more people get the opportunity to see it. For details and a sky map (although one is hardly necessary) see here.

The low altitude of no more than 30 degrees means that any telescopic view from the UK is marred by viewing through a thick wedge of turbulent atmosphere. Nevertheless it gives the perfect opportunity to try out some new technology on the old, by attaching a webcam on the telescope and using image registration software to clean up the turbulent frames to hopefully create some half decent images.

See below for the results...


30 Aug 2003

Mars; 30 Aug 2003

Mars; 30 Aug 2003, 23:51UT (31 Aug 00:51BST)

Three days past opposition Mars lies 56 million km from Earth and presents a disk some 25 arc seconds in diameter, clearly visible even in decent binoculars. It however takes a telescope of reasonable size to show the surface features. Click here or on the picture for an identification of all the features visible here.

The Sun shines face on in this view, with the south polar cap facing upwards and slighlty towards us (north is down and west is left according to astronomical convention).

Seeing moderate - poor, altitude 30 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/100s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 41km) per pixel. 500 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


6 Sep 2003

Mars; 6 Sep 2003

Mars; 6 Sep 2003, 22:58UT (23:58BST)

A week has now elapsed. Mars completes a rotation in 24.6 hours (right to left as presented here) so each evening at the same time the view is shifted east by about 10 degrees of Martian longitude. Coupled with the slightly earlier time this view is therefore about 75 degrees east (left) of the one above. Hesperia, the divide between the two dark areas to the far left of the 30th Aug picture now lies near the centre of this view.

Click here or on the picture for an identification of all the features visible. Elysium, the bright area to the lower left, is the intended target of the Beagle 2 mission to search for life, currently in transit to Mars as part of Mars Express.

Seeing moderate - poor, altitude 30 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/100s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 42km) per pixel. 400 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


13 Sep 2003

Mars, 13 Sep 2003

Mars; 13 Sep 2003, 22:09UT (23:09BST)

After another week the view is shifted east by further 75 degrees of Martian longitude. Sirenum Terra, to the left side on the 6th Sept view, now lies towards the right - see here for identification.

The bright area at centre left is Amazonis, which contains Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System. Under good conditions it can be seen from Earth, especially when it is snow or cloud covered, but no chance tonight!

Seeing moderate - poor, altitude 30 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/100s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 44km) per pixel. 450 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


19 Sep 2003

Mars, 19 Sep 2003

Mars; 19 Sep 2003, 22:27UT (23:27BST)

This view shows the hemisphere opposite that of the first picture of 30th August, and about 50 degrees further east of last week's view. Solis Planum (or Solis Lacus - Lake of the Sun), to the left last time, is now seen face on (click image or see here for identification). Of course this is not really a lake - the atmospheric pressure on Mars is currently too low to permit liquid water on the surface.

To the lower right of it is Araxes, in reality the Tharsis Bulge, a line of 3 huge volcanoes. Immediately below it is Tithonius Lacus, in reality the Mariner Valley, a canyon far larger than the Earth's Grand Canyon.

The change in colour compared to last week is not real but caused by my using a #80A filter to enhance the details and make the polar cap more obvious. Visually this filter is blue, but it also transmits infra-red, which is picked up by the web-cam and recorded as red. Therefore, this view is much more like how Mars actually looks in the telescope, more pink than orange.

Seeing moderate, altitude 30 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 45km) per pixel. 550 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


28 Sep 2003

Mars, 28 Sep 2003

Mars; 28 Sep 2003, 21:57UT (22:57BST)

Another 90 degrees of rotation reveals a new region, dominated by the dark linear Sinus Meridiani to the left of the view. At lower right is Chryse, the landing site of Viking I, the first lander to Mars, in 1976. Click image or here for identification.

With the Earth pulling ahead in its orbit around the Sun, Mars is now being left behind. It is now appreciably smaller than a month ago - 21 arc seconds across compared to the previous 25.

In addition, as the Sun - Mars - Earth angle increases so a little of the dark side of Mars becomes visible around the edge of the disk. With a phase of 94% the appearance is similar to the Moon 1.3 days before full. The Sun shines from the left in this view so the dark side is towards the right.

Seeing moderate - poor, altitude 30 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 49km) per pixel. 220 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


4 Oct 2003

Mars; 4 Oct 2003, 21:32UT (22:32BST)

After 5 weeks the view has come full circle and is almost back to that of 30th August. The dark triangular shape of Syrtis Major once again dominates the scene, with Sinus Sabaeus to the right of it (to the left in the previous picture). However, the south polar ice cap is now smaller as it shrinks under the Martian sumer sun.

Apart from that, the main difference is that the planet now looks smaller - 19.8 arc seconds compared to 25.0 at closest approach. This is because the distance has now increased from 56 to 71 million km.

The view is also becoming more oblique. With more of the dark side showing the phase has declined to 94.1%, equivalent to the Moon 1.5 days before full.

Seeing poor, intermittent cloud; altitude 30 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 50km) per pixel. 283 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


11 Oct 2003

Mars, 11 Oct 2003

Mars; 11 Oct 2003, 20:48 - 23:08UT (21:48 - 00:08BST)

Three views of Mars over the space of 2 hours 20 minutes. The planet's rotation is at a similar rate to that of the Earth and the right to left movement of the surface features is clear to see. Syrtis Major comes into view in pictures 2 and 3. Click the picture or here for an animated version.

The longitude of the view on the left is close to that of 6th September. However, despite the planet being further away the improved atmospheric seeing this time, plus use of the filter, allows a better quality picture to be obtained.

Seeing moderate becoming poor; altitude 30 to 25 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 54km) per pixel. 360 / 276 / 464 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


17 Oct 2003

Mars, 17 Oct 2003

Mars; 17 Oct 2003, 20:00 - 23:40UT (21:00 - 00:40BST)

Another three views of Mars over the space of 3 hours 40 minutes. Despite stacking the highest number of frames poor atmospheric seeing results in a lower quality picture than last week. However, Mars' rotation is clearly visible in this animation, even though there are fewer prominent features on this side of the planet.

Seeing poor; altitude 30 to 25 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 58km) per pixel. 493 / 1011 / 570 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


24 Oct 2003

Mars, 24 Oct 2003

Mars; 24 Oct 2003, 20:17 - 21:45UT (21:17 - 22:45BST)

The scene is dominated by Solis Lacus, like that of the 19th September. Notice that the planet now appears smaller owing to its greater distance and shows a phase of 90.5% because of the more oblique view. In addition the south polar cap, tilted towards the sun at the top of the planet, is now a lot smaller as it continues to evaporate in the heat of the Sun.

Seeing moderate becoming poor; altitude 30 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 64km (picture is wrong!)) per pixel. 364 / 194 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


1 Nov 2003

Mars, 1 Nov 2003

Mars; 1 Nov 2003, 20:00UT

With clouds rolling in from the west I unfortunately missed the clearest view and this shot was taken through high cloud. This reduced the contrast of Mars' features so it is a struggle to reveal anything at all!

The view is similar to that of 28th September, with the light cleft of the Margaritifer Sinus below centre cutting into the dark area of Mare Erythraeum. The south polar ice cap (at the top) is hardly visible at all - this is because it really has shrunk, so cannot be entirely blamed on the poor view.

Seeing moderate steadiness but through cirrostratus cloud; altitude 35 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/25s @ f/17. Wratten #80A filter. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 69km) per pixel. 370 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


7 Nov 2003

Mars, 7 Nov 2003

Mars; 7 Nov 2003, 19:00UT

A rather better view than last week, showing a similar view to that of 4th October. The dark triangular outline of Syrtis Major lies to the left, while the Sinus Meridian (Meridiani Planum) is just on the dawn terminator to the right. This is the site of one of the two rovers that will be landed by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission in January 2004.

The south polar icecap is not clearly visible in this shot, though better pictures than mine show that it is still present, though much smaller than previously. With increasing Mars - Earth separation, the shrinking disk size is making it harder to see the surface features. However, the planet's forward motion through the sky is now starting to elevate it to more a respectable altitude so steadier viewing should help in the coming weeks.

Seeing moderate; altitude 35 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Wratten #80A filter. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 73km) per pixel. 400 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


24 Jan 2004

Mars; 24 Jan 2004, 18:55UT

Two and a half months have elapsed since the previous picture and the planet image has halved in size as the Earth's faster orbital speed has pulled it further away from Mars.

The longitude presented is similar to that of 11th October - the linear features Cimmeria Terra and Tyrrhenum Terra are recognisable to the centre left though appear merged into one. To the lower left is the bright area Elysium, site of the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to seek out life on Mars. The dark triangular area of Syrtis Major should be visible to the lower right but is perhaps too near to the edge of the disk to be clear.

Seeing moderate; altitude 45 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Wratten #80A filter. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 143km) per pixel. 109 frames stacked with Registax v1.1.


9 Apr 2004

Mars; 9 Apr 2004, 21:35BST (20:35UT)

After another two and a half months the planet's apparent size has shrunk by nearly half again to only 4.7 arc seconds - with images this small it is easy to understand that Mars is actually a difficult planet to study. It is only once every two years that big images like those in autumn 2003 are possible.

Even at this small size Mars still shows something because its features have a higher contrast than those of other planets. It therefore supports a doubling of the image size compared to the original, whereas there is little to be gained doing this for the other main planets, which usually appear larger anyway.

By coincidence the longitude of this view is exactly the same as that of the previous picture, but the surface features are now only crudely visible. The white area to the left (sunward side) is the position of Elysium but is exaggerated during the processing of the image to enhance what little detail remains.

Seeing moderate to poor; altitude 40 degrees.

Philips ToUCam Pro, Barlow projection on 8.75inch f/7.3 Newtonian telescope. 1/50s @ f/17. Wratten #80A filter. Scale of 0.15 arc second (= 217km) per pixel. 111 frames stacked with Registax v2.1.


Thankfully the disk of Mars will not shrink much more than this, but later in the spring Mars will start to disappear into the evening twilight, before finally passing behind the Sun in September. Therefore no promises that any more pictures will follow, especially as more easy subjects are now on offer!


Back to 2001 - 02 Mars Gallery

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