Looking up at Mars

Did you know that we can see surface detail on Mars with even a small telescope?

Mars’ orbit is somewhat elliptical (egg-shaped) meaning that about every two years or so, Mars comes closer to the Earth becoming both brighter and larger in visual appearance if looking through a telescope.

Mars has a number of interesting features including polar caps, massive volcanoes and an incredibly large canyon.

Section of orb with a reddish brown surface and large section of white
Mars’ polar cap: NASA/JPS-Caltech/MSSS

While much smaller than the Earth, Mars goes through seasons due to the tilt of its axis of rotation (similar to Earth’s). This means that Mars’ two polar caps grow and shrink in response to the warmer or cooler weather in that hemisphere.

While inactive today, Mars has a number of very large volcanoes. Olympus Mons, the largest volcano, is almost three times higher than Mount Everest and about 400 km across (roughly the distance from Ottawa to Toronto!).

Section of orb in space with beige surface colour and protrusion with deeper brown colouring
Olympus Mons: NASA/JPL

Mars has the most extensive canyon/valley system that we have seen on any object within our solar system. Known as Valles Marineris or Mariner’s Valley (named after the space probe — Mariner 9 — that discovered it), this canyon stretches over 4,000 km across the planet’s surface. The Grand Canyon would disappear into one of the small tributaries in the bottom left of the image below.

Deep rust coloring of a surface with long textured formation
Valles Merineris: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

The previous three images were all taken by spacecraft visiting the planet and are not what one would see in a telescope.

Through an earth-based telescope, such as the 10” telescope at Killarney Provincial Park, the view is quite different, but interesting nonetheless.

Mottled reddish orange white planet on a black background with four arrows pointing to it, including the captions North Polar Cap, Volcanoes (red dots) and Valles Marineris
Mars as imaged through Killarney Provincial Park’s telescope

Signs of intelligent life?

Back in the 1800s, the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought that he was seeing “channels” through his telescope. The word “channel” in Italian is “canali,” which, if incorrectly translated, could be interpreted to mean “canals.

The difference is important in that the former interpretation (channels) can be assumed to be natural formations whereas the latter interpretation (canals) implies intelligent life and construction techniques.

It was this latter interpretation that Percival Lowell understood, which led him to think he was seeing evidence of intelligent life.

Much science fiction literature and film has been based on belief in martians due to the early observations and interpretations. We now know that Mars is a barren landscape that contains a great deal of frozen water (in the polar caps and beneath the surface) and, perhaps in the distant past, had oceans of liquid water. Its gravity however, is quite weak and much of its atmosphere has escaped into space.

If you are an astronomy enthusiast, don’t miss our monthly Eyes on the skies feature with timely information about what to look for in our night skies.