Harry Observes Mars at its best in 2020

Title + Sketch and copyright Harry Roberts ©, all rights reserved.
Figure 1: Mars near opposition, 2020 October 10. Sketch and copyright Harry Roberts ©, all rights reserved.

Regular solar system observer & correspondent Harry Roberts reports on his views of Mars near opposition.


Mars has fascinated peoples and cultures for millennia. The Red Planet was Nergel in Babylonia, the god of war and destruction. In Greece it was Ares, also meaning war. A look during closest approach shows the red orb is an impressive, even baleful, sight. It’s easy to imagine that the blazing ‘intruder’ prompted human sacrifice and warfare in emerging cultures; then faded away to become a minor red star…until the next time!

19th C Maps. Johann Madler (1794-1874), an astronomer, teamed up with ‘advanced amateur’ Wilhelm Beer to make and publish a magnificent Moon Map in 1834. By 1844 they were ready to tackle Mars – making the first map of the planet, to my knowledge. Features were mapped on a hemispheric grid but named only with letters.

It seems Schiaparelli was next to map the surface of Mars around 1877 using perhaps the 15-inch refractor at Pulkovo and, after 1860, likely the 8-inch at Brera Observatory near Milan where he worked for the next 40 years. He maps many more features, giving them ‘classical’ names. An era of mapmaking followed. Naming rights seemed to be respected and his exotic names are preserved on current maps. Most, it seems, were taken from Greek legend and ancient history with region names given to the pale areas and “watery” names to the dark areas, as they were regarded as bodies of water.

Mars 2020. There’s always a great telescopic ‘moment’ when we recognize a named feature in the eyepiece. This year’s ‘apparition’ however shows a less familiar view of the Red Planet. We see it much tilted northward – meaning most views show faint and largely unnamed southern ‘polar’ regions. However, on October 10 good views were had of Sinus Sabaeus and Meridiani with “Red Sea” Erythraeum to the left (east); all Schiaparelli names.

Space probes.For centuries Mars has intrigued us…the (planet) most likely to harbor life. It was known 200 years ago to have an atmosphere. For a century it was thought to have “canals”. … (yet) the Mariner 4 flyby in 1965 suggested it was simply a larger version of the Moon”. Thus began the modern era of Mars mapping. Quote from “Earthlike Planets” by B. Murray et al., 1981, Freeman and Co.

The latest Mars map it seems is the NASA/JPL map of 2001 made from a variety of space probe images. It retains many of Schiaparelli’s names. Figure 1 shows several classic sites sketched on October 10 UT with the current latitude/longitude grid added, showing how much it is tilted northward.

New Names. New names are needed of course; there is so much more to name! Take, for example, Crater Gale, Mars Lander “Curiosity” is still working inside Crater Gale. This crater name memorialises Sydney bank manager and amateur astronomer Walter Gale from the 1920’s. Modern namings are rather more plausible! And Gale was an ardent sketcher of planet Mars!

Clear skies!

Harry Roberts is a Sun and Moon observer, a regular contributor to the Sydney Observatory blog and a member of the Sydney City Skywatchers.

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