Two Weeks on Mars: Introduction

Two Weeks On Mars


Tony Misch, Bill Sheehan, Rem Stone, and Laurie Hatch

On August 27th, 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in recorded history -- closer than it will be again within any of our lifetimes.

Our program to observe Mars at the 2003 opposition with the Lick 36-inch refractor began in late 2002 as a suggestion by one of us (Sheehan) that we consider following the planet with that great telescope, emulating the visual observers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and perhaps gaining new insight into their work. The following Spring we submitted a formal application for telescope time.

In proposing the project, we felt--correctly as it turned out--that we might hope for the sympathetic support of Observatory Director Joseph Miller, who as a young amateur had made many visual observations of the planets, and of Director Emeritus Donald Osterbrock, with his passion for 19th and 20th century astronomy history.

Our proposal was approved and we were assigned August 28th to September 12th, a string of nights that in the telescope's heyday would have been a king's ransom in telescope time, and even today is a generous allotment. The assignment suited us well, spanning some of the most favorable nights for observing Mars, and at a time when weather conditions and seeing on Mt. Hamilton are dependably good. Further, our observing run was long enough for Mars' rotation to bring nearly its entire surface into view.

The proposal had included several possible types of observations, but in the event, the one which proved the most absorbing and the most profitable, was drawing Mars in the manner of earlier observers as a means of exploring the role played by visual perception and the eye-brain connection in the historic observations which brought the planet to such wide popular attention at the end of the 19th century.

During the course of our observations, the 36-inch became a focus of interest on the mountain. The dome variously took on the feel of artist's studio, salon, and cathedral; the project branched and flowered in unexpected ways. Many visitors came to see what we were up to, and, like us, became bewitched by the magic of the planet, captivated by the sense of discovery, and infected by the intensity and directness of the work at the eyepiece.

We feel enormously privileged to have had this opportunity and sincerely thank all who shared it with us and helped make it possible. (The observers wish to extend a special thank you to Rich Neuschaeffer for his very generous donation of a fine Zeiss binocular eyepiece to the observatory part way through the project.)