Mars Watch

by Tom Campbell

ObserverTom Campbell
LocationIola, Kansas (Long: 95°24'W Lat: 37°55'N)
EquipmentDiscovery DHQ 8" dobsonian
Eyepieces1.25" Plössls - 25mm (49x), 15mm (81x), 6mm (203x)
DateSeptember 6, 2003
Time8:15pm - 12:30am CDT (01:15-05:30 UT)
TransparencyClear (9/10)
SeeingStable (8/10)
WeatherTemperatures in the 70s. There was no breeze.

Due to a lot of the questions we have been asked about Mars lately, my friend Mike Myer and I decided to hold a public Mars viewing session. We first discuessed it on Monday or Tuesday, and decided the sooner the better, so held it that next Saturday. Because Mars was bright enough to be seen from almost anywhere, we opted to set up in the Iola Wal-Mart parking lot, due to the amount of parking available. Mike wrote up a Public Relations article for the local paper, and I made up a few flyers and posted them around town. I also gathered up a few facts about Mars, including a map of the side of the planet that would be in view that night, and printed up 100 handouts to give out as "souvenirs." So in less than a week, we had gone from basic idea to planning to advertising to hosting it.

We had advertised that we'd be set up from 9:00p-midnight. So we both arrived about 8:00p to set up our scopes and allow them time to adjust to the outdoor temperature. I brought my 8" Discovery dob, and Mike had his 10" and 20" Starmasters with him. We hadn't even completed the assembly of our scopes, however, when people began to wander by, hoping for an early peek.

Mars was visible, but it was still extremely low in the sky. Instead, I opted to point my telescope at the waxing gibbous Moon. I put in my low-power 25mm eyepiece, which yields about 49x, and allows the entire Moon to be visible in the field of view. I received the usual oohs and aahs about the seeing craters for the first time, and I gladly pointed out exactly where the Sea of Tranquility was, so they could see where man first set foot on the Moon.

Shortly after people started looking through my scope, I noticed another guy setting up a Starmaster next to mine. Thinking that there might be another amateur astronomer in the area that I wasn't aware of, I introduced myself. It turns out the guy was from Oklahoma. Some of his relatives here in town had been pestering him to show them his telescope, and when they told him about us setting up in Wal-Mart's parking lot, he decided to drive up and let them take a look. His name was Jeff Trester, and he had an 11" solid-tube Starmaster. I never knew that Rick Singmaster ever made a solid-tube 11", so I was happy to give it a look-see.

As it turned out, this fourth scope really came in handy. All told, about 150 people came to look at Mars, aging from little children to elderly who needed help getting to the eyepiece. With my telescope being the runt of the litter, I pretty much kept mine aimed towards the Moon, allowing the big guns to show detailed views of Mars. Occasionally, I would also focus on Albireo (most people didn't realize that stars came in different colors), and NGC 457 (the ET cluster).

One little 4-year-old girl in particular really liked NGC 457. She asked me to show her "the alien" two or three different times throughout the evening. At one point, she commented on how big its eyes were. She and I both wore glasses, so I told her that maybe the alien's eyes looked so big because it was wearing glasses, too. She giggled, and then wandered off again for a few minutes before returning for another peek.

The parking lot lights were helpful in some ways because everybody could see each other (and the equipment), and they felt safe. Everyone was polite and well-behaved (even the adults), and I think they all had a good time. I never once heard a kid say, "Mommy, can we go home now?"

When people weren't looking through the telescopes, they were discussing their childhood experiences with telescopes, or else asking Mike and I some questions. The handout that I gave away already had a lot of the facts about Mars printed on it, such as how far away it was from the Sun and from Earth, how big it was, etc., so most of the questions were about other things. We fielded the typical questons about our telescopes, such as how much they cost, how high could they magnify, how far away could we see with them, etc. And there were also some questions specific to what we were showing them, such as what makes stars different colors, how far away is that cluster, etc.

One of the newspaper photographers was there (his youngest daughter was the 4-year-old I mentioned earlier), and he spent his time at my scope trying to take an afocal photo of the Moon through my eyepiece with his digital camera. I gave him a few pointers and tried to keep the Moon in the center of the field of view while he concentrated on focusing the shot. If they turned out, I'm sure they'll appear in Monday's edition of the paper. Just in case, though, I emailed him a few afocal photos that I had taken a few weeks earlier.

Mike and I both made sure that we were positive influences. Whenever somebody told me about their department-store telescope that could reach even higher powers than my big 8" telescope, I just smiled and told them that was great. Then they'd comment that the view was sure a lot prettier through my telescope than theirs.

We didn't even have to mention light pollution. With us set up in a bright parking lot, the people saw for themselves how few stars they could see compared to their view at home. I'd hear comments like, "Boy, these bright lights sure do cut down on what you can see." So, without a single sermon on the evils of light pollution, people were getting the message. Maybe our town will slowly get a bit darker at night, one house at a time.

This was the first time that either Mike or I had ever helped organize a public viewing event, and I must say that it turned out well. So well, in fact, that we are now planning on having one in his hometown next week, weather permitting.