View Mars as we discover the Red Planet's History!January 4, 2012
Various governments and agencies are pushing to learn more about the Red Planet, primarily with satellites and probes for both Mars and some of its moons.
First up we have a report about a failed Russian probe. The Phobos-Grunt probe was to land on Phobos, the larger of Mars' moons, collect some rocks and bring them back to Earth for study. Piggybacking on the probe was China's first Mars satellite, which would use powerful telescopes to take detailed photos of Mars.
Unfortunately, the launch of the Phobos-Grunt damaged some of the communications technology on board, which prevented the Russians from firing the engine that would take it to Mars. As it falls back to Earth, Roscosmos has said that most of the toxic fuel on board will burn up in reentry. Astronomers around the world are modeling the fall to see where it will land, but most likely it'll land safely in the ocean.
Another probe was sent out in November, this time from NASA, and so far everything is going well. The NASA probe will land on Mars and deploy Curiosity, the "world's most advanced scientific laboratory". The rover is about the size of a car, and it can do a lot more than collect samples. There are a whole host of measuring instruments on Curiosity to allow NASA to collect a lot of data without retrieving the probe.
Probably the most advanced tool on the rover is the ChemCam, which will determine the chemical composition of various samples using lasers to breakdown the rocks and see what exactly Mars is made up of. This technique is called Laser-induced Breakdown Spectroscopy, or LIBS.
Spectroscopy uses radiated energy to interact with various substances. Based on the reaction we can see what material the substance is made of. We actually have Spectrophotometers that use this very principle, albeit in a non-Martian setting.
Curiosity will start generating data next August, which should prove very exciting for those interested in Mars.
I know a lot of you are fascinated by studies of Mars. The history, possibility of current or one-time Martian life and more make the Red Planet intellectually alluring. Curiosity may answer certain questions, such as if Mars was really once similar to Earth, with an atmosphere like ours, and if so, if there had been life.
As it is relatively close to Earth, Mars is a favorite object for Astronomers to view. Using even a small telescope you should be able to get a good view of the Red Planet. The Bushnell ARES 5 Inch Dobsonian Telescope is a fantastic choice if you're looking to save a little money, want a portable telescope and still demand quality. It comes with two eyepieces, a 10mm SPL10 and a 25mm SPL25, so you'll have some options for how much light and detail you want to see.
I do suggest picking up a few telescope lens filters, as they'll allow you to see greater detail as you view Mars. Orange and red filters are best for seeing detail in the dark surfaces, while green and blue will give you a better look at the poles and clouds. On a clear night you'll want to have a few different filters to get a more complete picture of the planet.
This month Mars will become visible around midnight, although it should become clearer toward dawn. The North Pole will be visible, as will Syrtis Major, which is a dark spot on Mars. This dark spot is a low-relief volcano, so be sure to take a look at it with an orange filter on your telescope.
In March you should be able to get an even better view, as Mars will be at Opposition, its closest point and fully lit by the sun.
Mars is one of the more fun celestial objects to view, and the ease of finding it makes it a favorite for amateur astronomers the world over. Keep an eye out for news come August, and take a look for yourself with a great telescope from OpticsPlanet!