Sunday, October 11, 2009


Mars and Me

2003's huge Mars as shot with Unk's humble SAC7b modified webcam.
Over the 45 years I’ve been observing the Solar System, one thing’s been an unwavering constant, muchachos: my love – hate relationship with the red planet. For some of us, especially those of us who grew up in the amateur astronomy of the 1950s – 1960s, Mars was what drew us to our avocation in the first place.

It’s hard to believe, half a century down the line, but back then the Solar System was still a pretty mysterious place. Was Mercury tidally locked with the Sun and blessed with a permanent, temperate TWILIGHT ZONE on the terminator (now you sprouts know where Rod Serling got his title)? Was Venus a lush tropical jungle or maybe a water world? Did dinosaurs lurk under the clouds? Most of all, though, there was Mars. Those markings on the surface…they looked vaguely green in hue. And seemed to change with Mars' seasons. Were they forests, or at least some kind of vegetation? Was there life, intelligent life? Maybe living in awesome cities like those on the cover of Analog magazine?

Frankly, even by the end of the fifties science could answer most of the above in the negative. But perhaps without 100% surety. The only spacecraft to have imaged another world up close was the Soviet Luna 3, which took some fuzzy snaps of Diana’s backside. And that was it till Mariner 2 visited Venus in 1962, and began to clue us in to the hellish nature of Earth’s “twin.” Mars didn’t get revealed until the late 60s. Until Mariner showed us those initially depressing vistas of desolate crater-littered landscapes in 1967. Till then, the Solar System was still as unknown and, in some ways, friendly, as it had been in the pulp pages of Captain Future and in the flickering images of Rocky Jones Space Ranger on the family Philco.

During the long, sweet summer that lasted from the 1950s and through the 1960s (it took a while for Mariner’s “truths” to filter out), Mars remained not much different from the way it had been imagined by Percival Lowell and Edgar Rice Burroughs: a world of POSSIBILITIES. No, most of us probably didn’t completely believe there were beautiful princesses barging down canals on gondolas rowed by six-armed slaves under the baleful light of Phobos and Deimos, but, honestly, who knew? Those flying saucers cruising over the drive-in theatres every freaking night  might be piloted by the infamous Little Green Men of Mars.

I certainly wasn’t one to naysay. As a kid, I was caught up in ray-guns and alien monsters almost to the exclusion of cowboys and pirates, and most of my “knowledge” about Mars was thanks to what I saw on the silver screen. I don’t mean the flickering screen of our black and white Admiral, either. I mean the big screen of the Roxy theatre. Back in The Day, my Old Man (W4SLJ, aka, “The Chief Op”) was a broadcast engineer at the local TV station. Friday and Saturday nights he usually worked at the studio till sign-off. For you young folks, in the dark ages TV stations in all but the biggest cities went off the air, "signed-off," at midnight. That meant that as soon as it got dark, me and Mama headed to the movie house and stayed there until just before it was time for Daddy to come home.

Me ol’ mum was a strong woman in many ways, but she had a weak point. Back in the late-fifties in our little neighborhood adjoining a U.S. Air Force Base, we were doubtless safe as milk. But as soon as the Sun went down, Mama began to imagine burglars, haunts, and who-knows-what in every shadow and with the creak of every board. Sure did freak li’l me out. Rather than endure all the dark hours till midnight when Daddy would throw up the Test Pattern and return home, she tended to bundle me off to the movies. Since we’d inevitably do both Friday and Saturday, we had to watch every penny; that most often meant the cheaper, second-run Roxy, not the upscale Saenger or Downtown theatres.

Unfortunately for me, most of the movies being shown at night at the Roxy were not well-suited to the lollipop brigade. I simply cannot believe she dragged a five-year-old to see Bergman’s Virgin Spring. Luckily, most of the time it was not highbrow art films, but Doris Day and Rock Hudson romps or Debbie Reynolds (li'l Unk had a huge crush on Miss Reynolds) in one of her Tammy excursions. There were also lots of horror movies too, which Mama doted on and which gave me plenty of nightmares. I'm talking blood-drenched (for those more innocent times) fare like Horrors of the Black Museum. My resulting night terrors always seemed to puzzle Mama: “Honestly, I just do not know what is wrong with that child!” There was ample sci-fi as well, and sometimes I lucked out big-time as I did the night they played The Angry Red Planet.

Fondly as I might remember it, this Technicolor-dripping urpic by Sid Pink, part of his vaunted TRILOGY along with Reptilicus and Journey to the Seventh Planet, is truly notable only if you either saw it as a kid or have a taste for “good” trash or both—like Unk. Watchin’ a DVD of the film today reveals it as pretty standard “programmer” fare: Valiant Spaceman, B movie vet Gerald Mohr, ably assisted by a wisecracking crewman, tangles with monsters and a pretty girl.

The famous rat-bat-spider!
Nevertheless, I was flat awestruck by the film’s images. The insane giant rat-bat-spider monster, the sea of oil, the giant amoeba, the “miles high skyscrapers” (seen only in the brief flash of a matte painting), all set-off in sickly red by Pink’s odd “Cinemagic” process, an attempt to disguise low-budget animation, I reckon. From then on, for me, Mars was The Angry Red Planet. Why couldn’t there be rat-bat-spiders and mile high Little Green Men apartment complexes? That was the beauty of Mars back then, muchachos, nobody knew.

It’s hard to believe that less than a decade separates The Angry Red Planet from that most “realistic” of SF movies, 2001 a Space Odyssey. And there had actually been some more realistic visions of Mars that preceded ARP's colorful fever dreams. Chief among these was the series Disney made, Man in Space. Originally shown on the old Disneyland TV show and later edited into a featurette, it was followed by Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond. I was left particularly open-mouthed by the latter when it was on at the Roxy. Even today, the series (on DVD, natch) is fun and thought-provoking. The contributions of Willy Ley and Wernher Von Braun accompanied by visuals that looked as if they came off the pages of a Chesley Bonestell book hold up amazingly well fifty years, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo later.

No, not all the sci-fi movies I admired were quite as cheesy as Angry Red Planet. 1955’s Conquest of Space was also a cut above. When I saw it as a third run at our Auto-Show drive-in, it was already at least five years old, but Little Rod was mucho impressed. When you mention “drive-in movie” in these latter days, you either get a blank stare or a wink-wink-nudge-nudge that’s recognition of the drive-in’s reputation as The Passion Pit. It was that, always, but it was also a family thing. Daddy, not wanting to manage a squirmy kid at a nice indoor theatre--or pay for it--would pack me and Mama in the car for a trip to the Auto Show or the Bama Drive-in. Mama, dang her, would bring a box-supper. Naturally, I lusted after the nasty chili dogs they had in the concession stand.

Following half an hour or so of running wild like a little crazy person among the swings and slides of the playground that was plopped down in front of the big, and I do mean big, screen, I was finally corralled in the back seat, Daddy mounted the speaker on the window, lit the mosquito coil on the dashboard (what in the heck was in those things?), and, following oodles of cartoons, newsreels, and who-knows-what, I settled in for The Big Double Feature, the first half of which was The Conquest of Space.

Conquest was not graced with an all-star cast. The closest it had to a star was Eric Fleming, who played the steely-jawed spaceman who has to deal with his commanding officer, a nutty old General (Walter Brooke), who, at the last and most inopportune moment, decides God doesn't want Man meddling with Mars. “THERE ARE SOME THINGS MAN WAS NOT MEANT TO KNOW!” There was other foolishness abroad, too, like the crew’s destination being changed from the Moon to Mars at the very last minute, and that aboard the Chesley Bonestell/Wernher Von Braun space-wheel they depart from, our heroes are forced to dine exclusively on Space Food Pills to the amusement of the station crew.

There is some pretty good stuff here, though. How could there not be? The movie was directed by George Pal and written by Chesley Bonestell himself. Yeah, there is PLENTY of silly comic byplay by the lesser crew members, but that was familiar to me from a zillion WWII movies. There always had to be a wise-cracking Jewish or Italian or other “ethnic” sergeant along for the ride. If nothing else, the spacecraft and the space station looked as if they’d leapt out of Herr Von Braun’s dreams. Weaknesses? Mars itself seems almost an afterthought, and the crew’s adventures there are, ironically, the weakest part of the film. I didn’t care. It was wonderful, and I hung on till the end, falling asleep, as usual, just as the second picture rolled. Mama always brought a pillow and blanket, and I always insisted I wouldn’t need them, and I always did.

The final member of my “Mars trilogy” is 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars. It was a bit of fluff concerning yet another Valiant Spaceman, Paul Mantee (Adam West is in it too!), who’s stranded on the red planet. This was accompanied by foolishness about malevolent slave-taking UFO aliens (thus Friday), but the movie was at least somewhat of an advance in that it, unlike most of what had gone before, at least hinted you might not be able to run around Syrtis Major in your PJs. Silly as it seems today, it stimulated my sense of wonder six ways to Sunday. I just loved it.

OH, those canals! So beautiful!
The point of this walk down cinematic memory lane, though, is that by the year before I got my first telescope, my image of Mars was already solidified. It was a mysterious and beautiful world of wonders. It might be criss-crossed by canals. There might be CREATURES OR ALIENS. There might even be a few giant amoebas lurking. What I wanted, nay expected, to see in the eyepiece of my Palomar Junior was, at the very least, a blood-red globe cross-hatched with canals, jus’ like the Mars shown at the beginning of Gene Barry’s 1953 War of the Worlds.

Unfortunately—or maybe actually fortunately—I missed the 1965 opposition of Mars, which came just before I got my hands on my 3-inch Tasco Newtonian. Sure, I could have watched Mars shrink, but it’s a good thing it didn’t dawn on me to do that. The Tasco had a hard time making even Jupiter look like anything other than—yes—a giant amoeba, and in 1965 Mars was a very puny 14-arc seconds across. I would have been crushed.

I didn’t know much about Mars, but I did know you wanted to wait for oppositions to come ‘round to get a good look, and I was on tenterhooks until that happened again, the spring after the spring of my Palomar Junior.

A couple of pluses I had going for me that made my quest for Angry Red a little easier were that around opposition time near Tax Day 1967, Mars was only about 4-degrees from Spica and was shining at an impressive magnitude of -1.6. I had probably idly scouted around for Red earlier in the year, but Mars ain't that easy to track down when he’s far from opposition; especially if all you’ve got for reference is an itty bitty chart in the back of Sky And Telescope and one of Edmund’s “Star and Satellite Pathfinder” planispheres. On a quiet mid-April evening, my long quest came to an end. It was obvious to me that that bright orange star shouldn’t be there among the blue diamonds of Virgo. I lined-up the Pal’s tiny finder on it, slammed-in my ½-inch focal length Ramsden, and had a look.

Yeah, I no doubt would have been crushed by Mars in the Tasco, but that don’t mean I wasn’t badly disappointed by the legendary world’s appearance in my 4-inch Edmund. What I had in the field was obviously a planet; there was a disk showing, and it was bright, but man was it small. At 90x, there was absolutely nothing to see other than a bright b-b. Pumping the power up to 180x via my Barlow did yield the slightest, tiniest hints of some kind of gray-blue-green markings on the disk, but that was largely just an impression, not something I could quantify with shape and form, and certainly nothing like the drawings I saw in Patrick Moore’s books. I tried to convince myself I saw a hint of a polar ice cap, but that required a lot of convincing.

Everybody liked the Auto-Show's concession stand!
I came back to the planet occasionally during the balance of his 1967 apparition, but didn’t expect much, and, maybe in part because of that, didn’t see much. I decided Mars was just way overrated and just darned hard. Truthfully, I was now informed enough thanks to Sir Patrick to know I wouldn’t see Percy Lowell’s mostly imaginary canals, but, darnit, I had sure expected something more than what I’d seen.

There things remained for the better part of two decades. Oh, I took an occasional glance at bad, ol’ Ares, but that was it. Mars was no good, I’d decided, and my hard-headedness meant I pretty much ignored the excellent 1971 apparition (near 25-arc seconds). In my defense, I was somewhat preoccupied at the time with being a silly college freshman, but that hadn’t prevented the occasional peep at M42. After 1971, the cycle wound down again to a minute 13-arc seconds in 1980. Luckily, before Red began getting’ good once more I wised up.

What wised me up wasn’t Mars, but Jupiter. One evening I was scopin’ the king out with my 6-inch Dobsonian, and began ruminating on how much more I could see of him now than I could back in the Good Old Days with the Pal Junior. On a whim, I drug the Pal out and had a look at Jove. Heck, I could detect almost as much detail as I could with the 6. I was using much better eyepieces than I had back in the day, sure, but I realized practice prob’ly had the most to do with the difference.

Practice, that greatest of all amateur astronomers, Sir William Herschel, used to opine, is as important in astronomy as it is in music. He ort-ta know, as not only did he show his mettle by discovering a major planet and a large chunk of the NGCs, he was a musician in his day job. Soon as I heard this, it made sense why my brother and sister amateurs saw so much more detail on the Angry One than I did: they gave him a chance.

I took the hint, and began giving Mars his share of eyepiece time whenever he was visible, big or small. Thanks to that, by the time the amazing oppositions of 1986 and 1988 rolled around, and the planet was inflated to a huge (relatively speaking) 24-arc seconds, I was seeing a lot. Not only the classical dark areas and polar caps, but things like the bright sandy blobs of dust storms, atmospheric clouds, and polar cap melt lines. Twenty years after my dreams of Mars had died, I was living ‘em. I had become a DEDICATED Mars-head; I would observe him every clear evening, dodging Possum Swamp's too frequent rain showers and clouds.

As Mars does, he cycled back down after ’88, shrinking into the 13-arc second range. But I kept looking. Part of it was the challenge, but part of it was also the fact that I wanted to keep my hand in in preparation for THE OPPOSITION, by which I meant 2003, of course. Well I knew that in that distant year Mars would assume the giant size of 25-arc seconds; bigger than he’d been in a long, long time, and bigger than he’d be for a long, long time again. While 25-arc seconds is barely more than half the size of Jupiter, I figured we would still see amazing stuff. I just didn’t foresee how amazing or the “how” of how I would observe the planet in the 21st Century.

In 2002, the year before the Mars became A Whole Big Thing again, I was well aware of the work amateurs were doing with webcams. I’d eagerly devoured the amazing images being posted on the QCUIAG "Quick Cam and Unconventional Imaging Astronomy Group" website. I didn’t start webcamming specifically because of the coming Mars show. I thought it just sounded interesting, and wanted to try getting some nice Moon pictures. To that end, I bought a cheap Quickcam off’n eBay and gave it a try. Surprise. The smallish images it produced were, when processed with a new-fangled program called “Registax,” as good, or really better than, any of the film pictures of the Moon I’d made over the last forty years.

I was sold. And I figured I’d get myself ready to go webcam-wise in time for Mars. I imagined most of my Mars time would be spent visually, but the images of Jupiter I’d done with my eBay cam had been pretty cool, and I figgered I’d shoot at least a few Mars pictures during the apparition. Anyhow, 2003's opposition definitely deserved a better webcam than my somewhat pitiful one. I could have gotten a more expensive Quickcam with a bigger chip, but instead decided to invest in a professionally--well, sorta--converted webcam, the SAC 7b. As related in the last edition of this silly little blog, I sold my monochrome Starlight Xpress MX516 CCD camera on the gull-derned AstroMart, and used the proceeds to finance a SAC.

Despite a couple of fairly long delays, my SAC 7 arrived in plenty of time for the Mars fireworks, and it was soon obvious I’d made a good choice. In addition to a nice screw-in 1.25-inch nosepiece and T-threads, the SAC had a metal body, a Peltier cooler, and a chip that produced 640 x 480 images, twice the size of those that came out of my poor Quickcam. While the SAC came with software, I chose to use it with K3CCD Tools, a surprisingly powerful camera control program. For finding, I had the Meade flip mirror I’d bought for the MX516 and hadn’t used much. I was all set, I figgered, but was still not quite sure how much I’d “see” with my SAC setup.

I had the good sense to know that even 2000 millimeters of focal length would not be enough to show much of even “huge” Mars, so I slapped a 3x Barlow on the flip mirror, and inserted my new camera into that. Cranked up K3CCD and focused long and carefully. Squinted at the screen and…

Jezzly Christmas! There was Syrtis Major lookin’ purty much like it did in all them pretty pictures I’d gaped at over all those long years. No, ‘twasn’t perfect. Mars was a shocking pink rather than red. I hadn’t yet glommed onto the fact that CCD chips are way too sensitive in the IR, and that I’d need an infrared blocking filter if I were to have a hope of getting the color balance right when I processed. But the detail flickering by on the screen was flat-out sensational compared to what I usually saw in the eyepiece.

The "eye" of Mars.
When I did run my resulting .avi movie sequences through Registax, which stacked all the individual frames, the good ones, anyhow, into a finished still picture, I was even more flabbergasted. The detail was way better than what had been in any of my picture books. Heck, my C8 was bringing back Mars images way better than those long-admired shots the 200-inch Hale telescope did in the 50s. Yeah, the lack of an IR filter (soon rectified) meant the best I could do was make ‘em a real angry red, rather than the peach-ish color I knew was more realistic, but so what? I loved my Mars pictures, and their garish color seemed fitting homage to the celluloid Mars that had entranced me for five decades.

So the darned computer and webcam displaced visual observing for me? Kicked it to the curb? Not completely. In a way, my webcam images complemented my visual work. I’d purchased a “Mars filter,” a peach-colored job, from Gary Hand at Handsonoptics, and when the Red One was at his height, I was seeing some interesting things with the aid of my printed images as “charts.” But, yeah, I gotta be honest with y’all, I spent more time staring at a computer screen than through an eyepiece. Sure, “visual” has its strengths, it’s the traditional way amateurs have monitored the Solar System, yadda-yadda-yadda. Truth was, I was seeing far more with a webcam than I could ever hope to see with my middle-aged eyes. I was way past polar cap irregularities, melt lines, and such. Hell, in one shot there’s a smudge that’s evidence of the crater that lurks in the armpit of Syrtis Major. Mons Olympus and the other big volcanoes? Duck soup. Sometimes, anyhow.

Far from feeling nostalgic for Circle T Orthoscopics and #25 red filters, I felt my decades long, if off and on, obsession with Angry Red had finally been vindicated. I was finally seeing those things that make Mars a mysterious and alluring world. So what if I was seeing ‘em on a laptop display instead of through glass? As that angry Martian voice had intoned at the end of ARP, I was now A TECHNOLOGICAL ADULT WHO HAD INVADED THEIR WEIRD RED HOME! I’m purty sure Gerald Mohr and Eric Fleming would approve.

Did you know that the Martian speech read at the end of Angry Red Planet was read by Ted Cassidy, aka "Lurch"?
You know, after all these years, believe it or not, I didn't put two and two together. Lurch! I'll be doggoned! Wouldn't think I coulda mistook _that_ voice...'YOU RANG?' LOL
Mars has been and always will be compelling to the Amateur Astronomer that is into planets.

Mars requires infinite patience, as it comes into opposition only every 21 months. When it does it calls for an observational and imaging assault that takes over your life (at least it did in my case in 2001, 2003 and 2005). I traveled from the seashore to the mountains to the high desert in order to get a good view.

The 2003 opposition turned into a media frenzy in Los Angeles. Many prominent club type amatuer astronomers, including me, got media attention that was unexpected and sometimes even frightening. Ever get a reporter putting a mike right in your face expecting a quick sound byte? You have to be quick on your toes...and know what you are talking about.

In addition, having the opportunity to see Mars through both the 60 inch MWO and 60 inch Palomar telescopes at that time was an experience that cannot be topped.

Now that things have calmed down, we can get back to our observing and imaging in peace...but the oppositions of the next few years are poor ones.

Still there is Jupiter and Saturn to look at and image...

As for the movies you mention, I only remember "Robinson Crusoe on Mars". It was a cool movie to my young eyes. But even at that age I could not believe how they reused "War of the World" Martian War Machines for some of the scenes. It confused me.

My maxim here in this miserable New England climate is if it is not cloudy, go 'zerbin. Went out last night to a Bortle 3 blue site. Temps got down to 29 degrees, but did imaging and observing til the Moon came up.
The dew turned into hard frost. Only the fifth time this year that conditions an schedule allowed me to get the equipment out....
Unk Rod! I've really not made enough time to read through your wonderful posts! I did find this one extra special. I too went through something similar in getting into the AP end of observing. It's taken over my planetary sessions. Here's a teaser I got the morning of LCROSS here from NC.

Here's to a great season for all!!

Great read, keep 'em comin'

The bug-eyed Pizza the Hut predecessor in ARP with the voice of Lurch scared little me when I saw this on the tube in the late 60s. I didn't realize the thing was filmed in garish red until seeing it decades later.

RCoM was a great little movie - IMO a classic despite the low budget.

Ah, yes, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Those important words from the survival video recording still ring true, don't they? "Don't drink urine - too salty.".

No compendium of silly scifi is complete without Attach of the Mole People, which is the first movie I ever saw, and had me looking under the bed for a week.

My love story with Mars kinda began in my teens with Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter/Barsoom stories. Cheesy, not particularly science oriented, but they were a lot of fun.

Just before the last Mars opposition, I bought a Celestron 114GT on sale at Costco. Mars was kinda tiny, but the scope was just big enough to see a few marks on the surface. Jupiter was more interesting of course.

I still have the scope, still use it now and then, and read amateur astronomy discussion groups, Weblogs, and S&T and Astronomy Magazines.
Another factoid I forgot to mention - the crew that made "Angry Red Planet" also made "Journey to the Seventh Planet". They reused some of the scenes from ARP - the landing footage, and the astronaut being absorbed by the amoeba - only they weren't tinted red.
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