A Wild West Welcome to Mars Hill!

Atomic museum bomb replicas: Little Boy and Fat Man. Photo by Tom Haeberle.

There is a very short window to observe Mars at its best opposition, this year being one of those good years; it won’t happen again until 2035.  It usually spends most of its time on the other side of the Solar System, so I was hoping to make the most of it by going to the dry climate of Arizona.  But by the time I got to Albuquerque, Covid-19 cases were rising, so we quickly got out of Dodge!

Before leaving town, my family and I visited the Nuclear Science Museum with its WWII atom bomb replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man.   I came to realize that it happened to be the 75th anniversary of those events in 1945.  Looking around New Mexico at the landscape, you can see how this would be the place to test an atomic bomb.  I thought of all those “sci-fi” B-films that created monsters, like the movie Them!

Our trip continued westward along interstate highway 40.  We traversed the the famous Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.  Astronomer Percival Lowell, founder of the observatory that bears his name, said of the Petrified Forest, “The traveler, threading his way across sagebrush and cacti plain, suddenly comes upon trunks of trees all over the ground as if [a] wood-chopper has been by with his scattered products, littered on the scene.  Leaning down to touch them, he finds they are [not wood but] stone.  Chalcedony, not carbon, [whose form] has outlived substance and kept the resemblance.”

We continued west to Flagstaff, Arizona, the town surrounded by the most impressive landscapes in the country.  To the east is a most majestic crater carved out of the soil some 50,000 years ago.  Simply called Meteor Crater,  probably there are ten thousand craters like it on Mars and probably a million more on the Moon.

Meteor Crater, Arizona with my son Tommy on the right.   Photo by Tom Haeberle.

Both Meteor Crater and our main target, Lowell Observatory, were integral to the Apollo Program: Meteor Crater was used by the Apollo astronauts for training, and Lowell Observatory was used for seeking out possible landing sites.   Almost everything about the surrounding area of Flagstaff reminds me of a Lowellian Mars: to the south, the beautiful canyons and the red clay soil of Sedona, to the north, the shattered remnant of a volcano, Sunset Crater, with its green vegetation struggling to break out of the black soil.

Grand Canyon Photo by Tom Haeberle

Farther north is the grandest canyon in the world, the Grand Canyon, built a billion years deep into the ground.  The Grand is insignificant if compared with the continental-size canyons of Valles Marineris on Mars.

Being here in Arizona, you can understand why perhaps Lowell was so infatuated with Mars.  The land is wonderful and so is the sky, the air clean and dry.  Above the town of Flagstaff, amid the Ponderosa Pines of Percival Lowell’s Mars Hill, sits the telescope through which he imagined the landscapes of Mars.

This was my fourth visit to the great observatory and my best chance to utilize the 9,772-millimeter focal length of the great Alvin Clarke telescope to view Mars.  But despite what appeared to be pristine skies on October 11 lay hidden problems (see below), preventing us from seeing much of what we had hoped to see.

I applaud the two technicians/assistants Kevin White and Kendall Edwards for their tireless efforts that evening to help me achieve my goals, particularly Kevin, who went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we had an enjoyable experience at the observatory.  Kevin stayed “after hours” to give us the full experience of the facility, by showing us the Pluto Discovery telescope and using their portable reflector telescope to allow us to view several more interesting night sky objects.

Tom (me) at the Lowell Scope Photo by Tom Haeberle

Jupiter and Saturn were awesome through the Clarke, but at times the viewing was limited due to the objects approaching low altitude.  Kevin had to maneuver the scope manually, some two-plus tons of it.  I had hoped to “see” Pluto, or at least the neighborhood where it should be, but that proved too challenging for us to view.   We did hit most of our targets, M57, M27, and M15, to name a few.

Unfortunately, the main target, Mars was a major disappointment for me through the big Clarke telescope. Even though the 24-inch aperture was “stopped down” to 18, sometimes 6 inches, I was surprised how hard it was to “see” surface details on Mars.  Stopping down increases the focal ratio while decreasing the aperture of the telescope.  Despite perfectly clear skies, the seeing was terrible; Mars appeared boiling, as if in hot water.

I had spent a considerable amount of observing time with my able assistants discussing how best to see details.  I suggested color filters and using my Herschel Wedge to reduce the glare of Mars.  The latter helped appreciably with the aid of an orange filter, but we had to adjust to my 1.25” eyepieces I had on hand.

Lowell’s Mars sketch Photo by Tom Haeberle

I was prohibited from fine-tuning the focus on the telescope, because of the pandemic.  I had to rely on the assistant to fine-tune the image for me, which at times was frustrating and laborious.  My four-hour session evaporated quickly.  I am in no way implying a negative experience, just saying that any criticism is meant to be constructive for the next observer at the telescope.

It has always been my dream to “see” Mars as Lowell saw it, or at least understand why he saw the things he saw, but I guess this was not about to happen in one night at Flagstaff. Lowell himself had conceded that the seeing on Mars Hill was not perfect, but better than most observing sites.  Alas!  There were n0 transverse strips crisscrossing the surface of a dying planet.

Very Large Array (VLA) Photo by Tom Haeberle

It was nice to end our journey in the vicinity of Socorro, New Mexico,

in an area full of speculation of spaceships and aliens.  We spent the last evening before sunset among the Very Large Array antennas, which were featured in the 1997 s-f movie Contact, in which these radio telescopes detected the first alien signal from Vega.

We watched the slow movement of one of the 27 independent antennas, pointing this way and that way at the sky.  We wondered what they were pointing to and what signals from advanced civilizations they might be listening to. See video here.