Sky and Telescope - July 2018 - 45
Under the Stars by Fred Schaaf
The author shares a
lifetime of encounters
with the Red Planet.
STEFA N SEIP
hen I was young the title of a
science ﬁction story that I never
even read caught my attention: "All
the Last Wars at Once." Now, in this
month's and next month's column,
with Mars closer to us than at any
other time in the 32 years between
2003 and 2035, I'd like to share a
concentrated account of memorable
Mars moments - mostly observational
- from my lifetime. Like mine, your
sights of mighty Mars this summer will
be grounded in whatever past experiences you've had with this most fascinating of our solar system's planets, the
world most like Earth.
My earliest Mars. I can't recall the
very ﬁrst time I knowingly saw Mars,
but it was probably before I was 8 years
old. Carl Sagan said he was 8 when he
stared imploringly at what he thought
(but wasn't sure) was Mars. "Imploringly" because he was hoping to be mystically transported to Mars by wishing
for it like John Carter did in Edgar Rice
Burroughs's early 20th-century tales of
adventures on the Red Planet. I probably
didn't read the John Carter books until
I was a few years older. But actually my
earliest encounter with Mars happened
in the summer of 1954, when I was
about minus-5 or minus-6 months old.
My mother always told me she remembered how often and intensely she found
herself watching Mars in that summer
of a near-perihelic opposition of the
planet when she was pregnant with me.
Mars and stars. This column is
called "Under the Stars," so it seems
appropriate to mention a few connec-
Mars and the Moon shine in evening twilight.
tions of Mars and stars that make the
stars involved all the more wonderful.
Mars spends most of its time far
enough from Earth for it to be outshined by close to 30 of the heavens'
brightest stars. But then it remarkably
kindles, doubling in brightness in some
months, until, in a month like July
2018, it burns almost ﬁve magnitudes
brighter, greatly outshining even Sirius.
The star most famously connected
with Mars is, of course, the red giant
Antares, whose name means "rival of
Mars" - rival in color. Back in February,
Mars passed fairly near Antares at similar brightness. But the perihelic oppositions of Mars typically occur when Mars
has moved on to glow like a burning
coal in the largely dim zodiac constellations of Capricornus or Aquarius.
Mars, Mebsuta, and me. Mars has
a special connection with a much dimmer star: The planet periodically has
very close conjunctions with magnitude-3.1 Epsilon (ε) Geminorum, the
star also known as Mebsuta. But back
in April 1976 the transparency was
excellent and seeing good across much
of the eastern U.S. for something much
better: Mars's spectacular occultation
of Mebsuta. A friend of mine who was
(and still is) a gifted telescopic observer
saw the star brieﬂy twinkle through the
thin Martian atmosphere.
Another person who observed the
Mebsuta occultation was a 14-year-old.
He had read about the upcoming event
in the weekly astronomy newspaper
column I had started with the coming
of Comet West the previous month.
(To this day I am still writing that
column, though now every other week.)
This bright young person contacted me
about his observation, and we eventually met, observed together, and went
on to become very close friends. In the
June 2017 installment of the column
you're currently reading, I discussed my
1977 trip to Stellafane with this friend,
Chuck Fuller. Sadly, Chuck died last
summer after a long ﬁght with cancer.
Next month. I'll take an inside look
at Martian lore, Viking at Mars, very
special daytime observations of Mars,
and the greatest meetings of Mars with
other planets - including the conjunction of Jupiter and Mars at their best
that happens only once every 143 years.
¢ Contributing Editor FRED SCHAAF is
the author of 13 books, including The
s k y a n d t e l e s c o p e . c o m * J U LY 2 0 1 8