Over the moon for Mars

People were lined up along every corridor of the fourth floor of Petrie Science Building, waiting for a chance to look at Mars through a telescope in York’s observatory

It was Wednesday, Aug. 27, and the red planet hadn’t been this close to Earth in 60,000 years. Some people would wait as long as four hours, children in tow. The last member of the public to look through the 60-mm lens left at 3:30am.

Astronomer and observatory director Paul Delaney estimated that 1,500 people turned up at York for a view of Mars. The crowd was huge compared with the 200 or so who had dropped by for a view on Monday and Tuesday. Delaney had a tough time persuading them that the view was just as good through smaller telescopes mounted on the parking structure roof next door.

Did he close at 11:30pm as scheduled? “And have a riot on my hands?” No. The indefatigable Delaney, who has been doing wall-to-wall interviews all week (see York in the Media), and his observatory team stayed until everybody had seen Mars. He kept the corridor-bound visitors entertained and educated with NASA broadcasts about the planet and his own slide shows. The award-winning teacher took advantage of his captive audience to promote York’s observatory activities and astronomy programs. At midnight, he opened a second big telescope in the observatory to accommodate the crowd.

Meanwhile, at the Arboretum observatory on the roof of the William Small Centre next door, the lineups were shorter and faster-moving. While waiting for their chance to look through one of four smaller, portable 20-mm telescopes, viewers could enjoy a brilliant Mars overhead in the clear, starry night sky and an equally brilliant Toronto skyline.

Right: Brenda Shaw guides viewers at an outdoor telescope

The view through the smaller telescopes on the roof was just as good as that through the larger ones, said an overwhelmed Delaney. The smaller telescopes, with a 100-times magnification, had good optics and good views in the clear air whereas the view in the observatory was “compromised because there were so many people in the room.” The crowd gave off so much heat that hot air filled the dome and created a shimmering heat haze that distorted the view in front of the lens. Delaney compared it to the kind of shimmering haze you see rising from a hot road on a sweltering summer day.

The image most people saw in their allotted few seconds was a bright, moon-white orb. If you were lucky, you might have discerned a whiter dot on top that indicated the planet’s polar ice cap.

Every night this week, including tonight, Delaney (left) and his 10-person team of mostly senior astronomy students will have been on duty 9-11:30pm to offer the public telescopic visions of Mars. Doing overtime Wednesday were students Brenda Shaw, Matthew Leightman and Eve Leightman along with Prof. Jim Laframboise.

It’s hard to predict the size of tonight’s crowd, but if you still plan to go, be aware you may have to wait. And if you miss viewing Mars this way this week, don’t despair. The planet will be visible for months. It will be just as bright for another three weeks, so come to the observatory when it is open to the public Wednesday evenings, suggests Delaney. “Mars will not have changed perceptibly in the next two to three weeks. After that, it will begin to get a little smaller. But you’ll be able to follow Mars well into November.”

For more information on the Mars viewing, visit the Department of Physics & Astronomy.