Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pumpkin Mars In The New Myth Sky

Two days ago, Monday evening, I took my telescope into my backyard to observe Mars.

Next week Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Mars will pass in front of the Beehive Cluster in Cancer. I wanted to familiarize myself with that part of the sky and with the current look of Mars.

Mars is very far away right now. The Earth will continue to move away from Mars until next winter. Right now, even at high powers, my small telescope shows Mars as a very small disk. There aren’t even hints of the polar caps or darker equatorial areas.

But Mars is very orange.

Mars is pure pumpkin these days. I mean, really orange. Pure pumpkin orange.

I used the word ‘pumpkin’ to describe Mars (and Aldebaran) last September, but the current color is much stronger. Perhaps because the light is coming from a much smaller disk.

Mars now looks like some giant hurled a pumpkin up into the black night sky and then turned a blazing spotlight onto the distant squash.

I considered doing an oil pastel sketch of Mars, but Monday evening Mars was in a patch of sky with no background stars. Even at my telescope’s lowest power, 36x, there were no field stars visible along with Mars. I thought even an impressionistic rendering would need something more than just the planet.

I was shocked, in fact, by the look of the sky to the west on Monday.

I’ve noticed for the last couple of years that light pollution was bad, but Monday I got a view of just how bad.

Looking west, I could see—just barely—Pollux and Castor in Gemini. I could see Procyon in Canis Minor.

And that was all.

And I suspect that somebody new to the stars might have missed Pollux and Castor. The entire western horizon was Procyon and that’s about it.

I first located Mars by finding Pollux and Castor in my binoculars and then sweeping south along the ecliptic.

This business of cloudless skies with no stars—or almost no stars—is getting kind of bizarre. In fact, some academics suggest there is a whole new celestial mythos being born.

Here’s a bit of an extended quote about the problem:

An incident that emphasizes just how far some city dwellers are removed from real stars occurred in the hours following a major Los Angeles-area earthquake in 1994. The 4 a.m. quake, centered in Northridge, California, had prompted almost everybody who felt it to rush outdoors for safety and to inspect the damage. But the trembling landscape had also knocked out power over a wide area.

Standing outside in total darkness for the first time in memory, hundreds of thousands of people saw a sky untarnished by city lights. That night and over the next few weeks, emergency organizations as well as observatories and radio stations in the L. A. area received hundreds of calls from people wondering whether the sudden brightening of the stars and the appearance of a ‘silver cloud’ (the Milky Way) had caused the quake. Such a reaction can come only from people who have never seen the night sky away from city lights.

According to Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, many of the anxious callers were reluctant to believe that what they had seen while the power was off was the normal appearance of the real night sky. Krupp, an expert in sky mythology and constellation lore, says that a new mythology has appeared over the past 25 years, a period which coincides with a massive increase in the quantity and brightness of outdoor lighting fixtures.

“Since so many of us never see a non-light polluted sky from one year to the next,” he explains, “a mythology about what people think a true star-filled sky looks like has emerged.”

This has spawned what I call urban star myths—generally accepted ‘facts’ about the appearance of the night sky—that can be proved false by just looking at a starry night sky. But, of course, that’s the problem.

Terence Dickinson
NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe

I’m looking forward to next week. The pumpkin orange of Mars against the glittering white stars of the Beehive should be remarkable and I’ll definitely do a sketch or two of the scene.

But also I’m cautioning myself to remember how light polluted our skies have become. I’m not sure what the Beehive will look like. I last observed the Beehive a couple of decades back under much darker skies. I should have checked out the Beehive Monday, but I got completely engrossed in the whole pumpkin orange color of Mars.


A few days ago I mentioned that last winter I did some tests using oil pastels of celestial scenes. I thought I’d tossed out the results, but Tuesday I found a little notebook with one of the tests in it.

By a coincidence, the oil pastel test I found is one of orange-red Aldebaran in the open cluster of the Hyades in Taurus. Aldebaran is more scarlet than pumpkin colored. But the view can be remarkable.

I observed Aldebaran on a freezing winter night when the star and cluster were high in the sky, as far from light pollution as you can get around here.

Looking at the scene through my binoculars, it was almost possible to pretend that I wasn’t standing on my grass back lawn, but rather out in space, too, looking through a viewport of a spaceship at the glittering scarlet star and the glittering white and black backdrop.

I did this oil pastel sketch trying to catch something of the overall scene. The size of Aldebaran and the stars are exaggerated because I was trying to capture a little of the glittering effect. I compressed, a little, the overall size of the cluster.

However, subjectively, this very rough oil pastel sketch does bring back almost completely my memories of the scene, my experience—my impression—of what I observed that night.

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