Mars Gaze  2003

On Saturday, August 30th, the Auburn Astronomical Society,  and the W.A. Gayle Planetarium on Montgomery, co hosted  "MARS GAZE 2003".

By 6:00PM, when we arrived to set up the telescopes, the queue for the 7:00PM showing of the movie "War of the Worlds" in the planetarium, filled the lobby and extended out the sidewalk.  The turn-out was such that planetarium director, Rick Evans, determined that two showings of the movie would be required to accommodate everyone.  The planetarium seats 235.  Ten extra chairs were brought in for the second showing (which was also SRO).  Rick estimated the at least another 100 came only to have a look through the telescopes, or could not get in to see the movie, giving us at total attendance of close to six hundred! 

Prior to each showing of the movie, Rick, in a tribute to the 

Auburn Astronomical Society, gave a Power Point presentation to the visitors.  Rick had artfully choreographed the strains of Alabama's "On This Side of the Moon" with composite images of members of the society set in astronomy related scenes.  We've asked Rick to send us a copy to show at a future AAS meeting.  Outstanding piece of work, Rick.  Thanks!

Other groups hosting similar events during the week of Marsí closest approach had reported being overwhelmed by larger than expected crowds.  Rick did his usual great job of getting the word out about this to the local media.

Channel 12 (WSFA) (Rich Thomas) did a live remote broadcast at the planetarium on the Tuesday night before our event, on both the 5:00 and 6:00 news. Rick reported that the planetarium was  inundated with phone calls from the time the broadcasts were

aired up until the show began Saturday.  Promotions were also run on WVAS radio and on WAKA, Channel 8.

"Based on the calls, I would anticipate one of the largest groups we have ever had out here."   Rick predicted. 

Quite prophetic!

Because of Mars' low altitude at the beginning of the evening, we had to set up the telescopes farther back toward the park perimeter road than we have for our Astronomy Day events -- around the area where "Neptune" and "Pluto" are on the model solar system sidewalk. 


We would be looking over Jackson Hospital at Mars rise.  The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of afternoon thunder showers.  As threatening clouds came and went, Rick was bringing us the latest radar images of storms in the area. 

Those attending the first showing of the movie poured out of the planetarium a few minutes before 9:00PM.  As they lined up 10 to 15 deep at each of the telescopes we had them look at some of the brighter objects in the area of sky that we could see such as Albireo -- the beautiful gold and blue double star, as all waited patiently for Mars to "get out of the hospital".

As skies darkened, the air cooled, dissipating what remained of the clouds.  Brilliant Mars made its grand entrance right on cue.  Once it had cleared the lower layers of our atmosphere, the image was steady and sharp at 350 power. Many of the visitors were able to make out the subtle surface features in the Sinus Sabaeus, and Sinus Meridiani regions.  The south polar cap was easy for everyone.  Most visitors took turns at each of the telescopes.

The dreaded Earth clouds nor the global Martian dust storms ever materialized.  We had a wonderful evening that ranks up there with our 1984 annular solar eclipse, the Halley Watch in 1986, comet Hale-Bopp, and the 2001 Leonid storm.  As the crowd diminished we started to pack up our scopes.    We finally left at midnight with the satisfaction of knowing we had given many visitors a memory that will last a lifetime.

Interested visitors watch John Clifton as he readies his scope.

Eddie Kirkland puts the finishing touches on his 16".
Special thanks to the following, some who made special trips here for this event from many miles, who gave of  their time and telescopes for the event:

Alan and Susie Cook, 10-inch SCT
Eddie Kirkland, 16-inch Dobsonian
John Tatarchuk, 18-inch Dobsonian
Robert Rock, 8-inch SCT & 70 mm refractor
Ray and Ann Kunert, 4.5-inch Newtonian
Russell Whigham, 11-inch SCT
Mack Acheson, 10-inch Newtonian
Taylor Jernigan, ETX-125 Maksutov
John Clifton, NexStar 4GT (Isn't that a new telescope, John?).

And, to Ed Beckstrom, John Zachry, and old friend, Mike Fulmer for giving general assistance and moral support.

And finally to Rick Evans, without whom this would not have happened, our heartfelt appreciation and gratitude for this wonderful partnership that we have with forged between the W.A. Gayle Planetarium and the Auburn Astronomical Society.

John Tatarchuk answers questions from a young visitor.
Photo by Mack Acheson

Russell and wife Cathy waiting for dark.


Mars Data:

Image from Mars Previewer II

Apparent magnitude: -2.87
Longitude of central meridian: 331.82
Apparent angular diameter: 25.05 arc seconds
Mars will pass within 35 million miles Earth.
Earth and Mars haven't been this close in the past 57,000 years.
The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287. 
(August 28th if you want to mark your calendar)

The prominent features seen were South Polar Cap, Syrtis Major, Sinus Sabaeus, and Sinus Meridiani.

Here are two of the responses the the Mars Gaze that Rick received and forwarded to us:
I wanted to thank you for Saturday night.  I brought my son and one of his friends, they had a blast.  A couple of the men from the Astronomical Society really took a lot of time talking with me, explaining a lot of stuff about the telescopes (my son wants a better one and I had no idea what to look for).  They really went out of their way to be helpful and were very patient with my "inexperienceness", if that's a word.  Feel free to forward this to them so they will know how much I appreciate them.  Well, anyway, just wanted to send you an extra thanks for everything you've done, once again, you are very appreciated.

God bless,,,,,,,Kim and Elex


Thanks for the email and the opportunity to see this amazing event. Pass the word along the those who allowed us to use their telescopes to get a better view of the Mars Opposition. 

Please keep me on the mailing lists for future events. My kids ages 15 and 10 really enjoyed this opportunity. 

Thanks again, 
Rebecca Loftin for 
Taylor Loftin