Did you know that we can see details of the surface of Mars even with a small telescope?
During most of October, Mars rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. It is now (after the Sun and Moon) the brightest object in the sky and remarkably pink!
Mars’ orbit is somewhat elliptical (egg-shaped), meaning that about every two years, Mars approaches Earth, becoming brighter and larger in visual appearance if viewed through a telescope.
Some of these narrow approaches are better than others. This year, on October 6, Mars will be closer to us than it will be in the next 15 years, so get out and see the planet for a bit in the autumn air!
The Martian landscape
Mars has a number of interesting features including polar ice caps, massive volcanoes, and an incredibly large canyon.
The polar cap of Mars: NASA/JPS-Caltech/MSSS
Although much smaller than Earth, Mars goes through seasons due to the tilt of its axis of rotation (similar to that of Earth). This means that Mars’ two polar caps grow and shrink in response to the warmer or colder climate in that hemisphere.
Although it is inactive today, Mars has several very large volcanoes. Olympus Mons, the largest volcano, is almost three times taller than Mount Everest and is about 400 km wide (about the distance between Ottawa and Toronto!).
Mount Olympus: NASA/JPL
Mars has the most extensive canyon/valley system we have seen on any object within our solar system. Known as Valles Marineris or Mariner’s Valley (named after the space probe – Sailor 9 who discovered it), this canyon extends 4,000 km above the planet’s surface. The Grand Canyon would disappear into one of the small tributaries at the bottom left of the image below.
Valles Merineris: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University
Looking at Mars
The three images above were taken by spacecraft that visited the planet and are not what one would see with a telescope.
Through small to medium-sized ground-based telescopes, such as the 16” telescope of the Kchi Waasa Debabing (Anishinaabemowin for “see far away”) Observatory in Killarney Provincial Park – The view is quite different, but interesting nonetheless.
Today, astronomers use a technique known as lucky imaging to acquire images of planets that would never have been thought possible just twenty years ago.
When taking high-speed videos (like the one shown above), thousands of frames are captured.
By removing the blurriest frames, astronomers can stack and align the sharpest frames and compensate for the planet’s rotation to produce a sharp final image like the one below:
Click to enlarge
Mars, photographed above by Killarney Provincial Park Discovery Leader Maggie Roque, on the morning of September 23, 2020 with the 16” telescope housed in the Kchi Waasa Debabing (Anishinaabemowin for “see far away”) Observatory. Images of Olympus Mons, Northern Polar Hood and Valles Marineris are from NASA and ESA.
Signs of intelligent life?
In the 19th century, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he was seeing “canals” through his telescope. The word “canal” in Italian is “channels”, which, if translated incorrectly, could be interpreted as “channels.“
The difference is important because the first interpretation (canals) can be assumed to be natural formations, while the second interpretation (canals) involves intelligent life and construction techniques.
It was this latter interpretation that Percival Lowell understood, leading 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 early observations and interpretations. We now know that Mars is an arid landscape that contains a lot of frozen water (in the polar caps and below the surface) and, perhaps in the distant past, had oceans of liquid water.
Following the flow
One of the current hot topics in the study of Mars is the role that running water may have played in the development of Mars’ geography.
Of course, if liquid water existed in large quantities in the past, there may have been a greater chance of life forming or even thriving on the planet.
In fact, many images show what appear to be the erosive results of dried rivers, ravines and lake beds.
However, in a recent article published in Nature Geoscience1, a team of American and Canadian researchers suggests that many of these features found in the Southern Highlands of Mars resemble formations found in the high north of Canada and may have been caused in a similar way; the erosive result of glacial or subglacial activity, rather than water.
This would put a stop to the idea that Mars may have been filled with water in its past.
Only by continuing to explore the planet with robotic spacecraft and human explorers will we probably finally answer this fascinating question of whether Earth is the only home of life in our solar system.
If you’re an astronomy enthusiast, don’t miss our monthly “Eyes in the Sky” feature!
 Grau Galofre, Anna & Jellinek, Mark & Osinski, Gordon. (2020). “Valley formation on early Mars by fluvial and subglacial erosion”. Nature Geoscience. 10.1038/s41561-020-0618-x.