Observation Of Mars


Mars has been observed by many ancient civilizations, all which have their own stories to tell about the red planet.

In the sky, Mars will appear like a red planet. Depending on the aperture, telescope size, and visibility, the detail on the planet that can be seen will vary. When close, “observing Mars is worth the effort. It’s the only planet to reveal an appreciable amount of surface detail in a small telescope.[1]” The best advice to view the planet is that “the highest usable magnification depends on the seeing conditions and the aperture of your telescope. Generally, a magnification of 30-50x the aperture (in inches) works well on nights of average-to-good seeing. For example, if you have a 4-inch telescope, try 120x to 200x. If you have an 8″ scope, try 240x to 400x.”[1]

Finding Mars in the sky in the PNW can vary, but it can best be seen in the summer and fall.

Some of the early records of this observation dates back to the era of the ancient Egyptian astronomers in the 2nd millennium BCE. 

Chinese records about the motions of Mars appeared before the founding of the Zhou Dynasty in 1045 BCE, which is more than 3000 years ago. This is backed up by literature from ancient China, which confirms that Mars was known by Chinese astronomers by no later than the fourth century BCE.[2] In the East Asian cultures, Mars is traditionally referred to as the “fire star,” based on the Five elements.[3]

The ancient Sumerians believed that Mars was Nergal, the god of war and plague.[4] During Sumerian times, Nergal was a minor deity of little significance,[4] but, during later times, his main cult center was the city of Nineveh.[4] 

Detailed observations of the position of Mars were made by Babylonian astronomers who developed arithmetic techniques to predict the future position of the planet.

In Mesopotamian texts, Mars is referred to as the “star of judgement of the fate of the dead”.[5] The existence of Mars as a wandering object in the night sky was recorded by the ancient Egyptian astronomers and, by 1534 BCE, they were familiar with the retrograde motion of the planet.[6] By the period of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Babylonian astronomers were making regular records of the positions of the planets and systematic observations of their behavior. For Mars, they knew that the planet made 37 synodic periods, or 42 circuits of the zodiac, every 79 years. They invented arithmetic methods for making minor corrections to the predicted positions of the planets.[7] In Ancient Greek, the planet was known as Πυρόεις.[8]

The ancient Greek philosophers and Hellenistic astronomers developed a geocentric model to explain the planet’s motions. Measurements of Mars’ angular diameter can be found in ancient Greek and Indian texts. This can been by works done in the fourth century BCE, when Aristotle noted that Mars disappeared behind the Moon during an occultation, indicating that the planet was farther away.[9] Ptolemy, a Greek living in Alexandria,[10] attempted to address the problem of the orbital motion of Mars. Ptolemy’s model and his collective work on astronomy was presented in the multi-volume collection Almagest, which became the authoritative treatise on Western astronomy for the next fourteen centuries.[11]

The first telescopic observation of Mars was by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Within a century, astronomers discovered distinct albedo features on the planet, including the dark patch Syrtis Major Planum and polar ice caps. They were able to determine the planet’s rotation period and axial tilt.

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model for the Solar System in which the planets follow circular orbits about the Sun. This was revised by Johannes Kepler, yielding an elliptic orbit for Mars that more accurately fitted the observational data.

These observations were primarily made during the time intervals when the planet was located in opposition to the Sun, at which points Mars made its closest approaches to the Earth Better telescopes developed early in the 19th century allowed permanent Martian albedo features to be mapped in detail. The first crude map of Mars was published in 1840, followed by more refined maps from 1877 onward. When astronomers mistakenly thought they had detected the spectroscopic signature of water in the Martian atmosphere, the idea of life on Mars became popularized among the public. Percival Lowell believed he could see a network of artificial canals on Mars.[12] These linear features later proved to be an optical illusion, and the atmosphere was found to be too thin to support an Earth-like environment.

In August 1877, the American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered the two moons of Mars using a 660 mm (26 in) telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory.[13] The names of the two satellites, Phobos and Deimos, were chosen by Hall based upon a suggestion by Henry Madan, a science instructor at Eton College in England.[14]

Check out the Planetary Bodies Category for similar articles on the planets of solar system!

Sources And Further Reading

[1] = https://cosmicpursuits.com/2183/how-to-see-mars-in-2018/
[2] =  Needham, Joseph; Ronan, Colin A. (1985). The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China: An Abridgement of Joseph Needham’s Original TextThe shorter science and civilisation in China2 (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-521-31536-4.
[3] = de Groot, Jan Jakob Maria (1912). “Fung Shui”Religion in China – Universism: A Key to the Study of Taoism and Confucianism. American Lectures on the History of Religions, volume 10. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. p. 300. OCLC 491180.
[4] = Rabkin, Eric S. (2005). Mars: A Tour of the Human Imagination. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. pp. 9–11. ISBN 978-0-275-98719-0.
[5] = Thompson, Henry O. (1970). Mekal: The God of Beth-Shan. Leiden, Germany: E. J. Brill. p. 125.
[6] = Novakovic, B. (2008). “Senenmut: An Ancient Egyptian Astronomer”. Publications of the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade. 85: 19–23. arXiv:0801.1331. Bibcode:2008POBeo..85…19N.
[7] = North, John David (2008). Cosmos: an illustrated history of astronomy and cosmology. University of Chicago Press. pp. 48–52. ISBN 978-0-226-59441-5.
[8] = Cicero, Marcus Tullius (1896). De Natura Deorum [On the Nature of the Gods]. Translated by Francis Brooks. London: Methuen
[9] = Poor, Charles Lane (1908). The solar system: a study of recent observations. Science series. 17. G. P. Putnam’s sons. p. 193.
[10] = Harland, David Michael (2007). “Cassini at Saturn: Huygens results“. p. 1. ISBN 0-387-26129-X
[11] = Hummel, Charles E. (1986). The Galileo connection: resolving conflicts between science & the Bible. InterVarsity Press. pp. 35–38. ISBN 0-87784-500-X.
[12] = Dunlap, David W. (October 1, 2015). “Life on Mars? You Read It Here First”New York Times.
[13] = Gingerich, Owen (1970). “The satellites of Mars: prediction and discovery”. Journal for the History of Astronomy1 (2): 109–115. Bibcode:1970JHA…..1..109G. doi:10.1177/002182867000100202.
[14] = “Obituary: Sir Joseph Henry Gilbert”. Journal of the Chemical Society81: 628–629. 1902. doi:10.1039/CT9028100625.

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