The Great Mars Opposition of 2003

As you've no doubt been bombarded with, Mars was closer to the earth on Aug 27, 2003 than at any other time for the past 59,000 years. Why so long? Mars' orbit is very elliptical, and it reached it's closest point to the sun a mere 48 hours after it reached opposition with the earth. This would be sufficient for Mars to be at it's closest in a few hundred years, but why 59,000? Because Jupiter - by far the most massive planet in the solar system - has been tugging on Mars' orbit and slowly making it more elliptical as the millenia tick by. Thus, the closest point of Mars orbit to earth's orbit has been getting smaller and smaller. It will be another 300 or so years before Mars makes a closer approach. There are more Mars pictures from this and later oppositions on the individual pages of Chris Kitting and Shahram.

Our Astro 9 students got excited by this prospect, and last year I received funding for a digital camcorder for doing a new, advanced form of astrophotography: a couple of years ago it was realized that for planets, it is possible to take hundreds or thousands of frames in a short time by using a camcorder mated afocally to a telescope eyepiece. Software was developed for then combing through these images to find the few that occurred when the atmosphere was momentarily steady and the image was sharp and clear. By then stacking the best few percent of all these frames, one could raise the signal-to-noise ratio of the resulting image by factors upwards of 100. Further processing using software originally conceived and developed for dealing with the Hubble Space Telescope early images can then sharpen and enhance the detail uncovered. The final images are beautiful and impressive, especially if they are taken in fine optics under excellent "seeing" condition. Alas, we rarely get such great conditions here, but our crew made field trips to Chews Ridge - measured to be one of the best astronomical sites in California - and to the high ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains in order to take some great photographs of Mars. Here are the first results from our advanced Astrophotography students (Astro 9B and 9C'rs Jay Friedland, Allen Ginzburg and Chris Angelos). Expect further tweaking as we climb the learning curves...

Jay Friedland made this nice image of Mars on Aug 26, 2003 from C.T. English School in the Santa Cruz Mountains using our 10" LX200 and 54 seconds of footage from the camcorder. He used Registax 2 in 'automatic' mode, importing from a Mac using iMovie, then Quicktime 6.3 Pro to convert to an .avi file. After Registax found and stacked the best images, he imported the result to Photoshop 7 for a bit of final sprucing up. Mars was only 15 degrees above the horizon at this time and the seeing was quite poor, so this posed a challenge. Still, the south polar cap as well as the CO2 haze over the north pole are clear, as is a number of basaltic basin markings.


Jay made this beautiful image later on the night of closest approach, after he, Allen, Karl and I drove to Lick Observatory and was able to hand-hold his camcorder to an Astrophysics 7" refractor (at 1:13:48am). A single second of fine seeing gave 27 frames extracted with iMovie on his Mac and used a DV/DVpro codec at 29.97 fps to write an .avi file for Registax 2 to stack. Overall level and contrast, and an unsharp mask were applied in Photoshop. The spooky "Eye on Mars" is dead center. Nice work!



Allen Ginzburg made this image from his new Intel webcam, which uses prime focus imaging instead of the afocal imaging used with camcorders. Much cheaper, but requires long focal length optical input, which was not ideal here. This image is a first cut, made from a stack of the 67 best, hand-picked frames from a total of 299, taken from his front yard in Aptos - not a great location for good seeing, alas.




Allen then got a new Philips Toucam webcam and tried it out with the10" LX200 in Aptos Sept 9, during a night of "terrible seeing, with clouds coming through constantly", and yet got a strikingly good image. Allen comments that even the raw video footage looked much better than the footage from his Intel webcam used to make the picture immediately above. Why? We're intrigued... possible explanation - the lack of intermediate lenses between the telescope and the imaging chip. We're in the process of doing a controlled test using footage from 2 different scopes using the Toucam and the department's Canon ZR45mc camcorder on the same night, same location.

On Sept 11 Jay, Allen and I accepted an invitation from the Peninsula Astronomical Society for a night of Mars photography from their Oak Ridge Observatory. Allen made this incredibly detailed image from the best 82 frames of Toucam webcam footage taken on the PAS's 16" telescope, processes in Registax. Post processing included wavelet sharpening and color. The resolution reaches 1 arcsecond in this image. Syrtis Major is at center, Helles is above the shrinking south polar cap. Another version of Allen's photograph will be published in an upcoming issue of "Popular Astronomy" magazine.



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