by David A. Aguilar
It came and went so quickly last night as my trusty grad-assistants Shirley and JoJo faithfully monitored the telescopes .The sky was socked in with clouds with occasional windows opening up and it was cold cold cold!
At around 7:30, the sky cleared and there it was, Mars, disappearing behind the moon.19th century astronomers watched these rare events to try and determine if the Moon had an atmosphere like Earth.
If Mars wavered and slowly blanked out it meant the moon had air and maybe life crawling around looking for bargains on Black Friday. If Mars just blanked out there was no air on the moon and-OH WELL-time to look elsewhere!
In fact, up until the turn of the 20th century, it was assumed or ordained by God, that all the planets in the solar system had life on them. God had been busy. Earth was not the only Heavenly Garden of creation. Venus, being nearer to the sun, was covered by lush tropical jungles. Mars was populated by fierce warriors that roamed the vast deserts crisscrossed with global irrigation canals. Aliens living on the moons of Saturn were in awe of the rings that graced their lovely skies. The Moon was populated with creatures called Selinites, intelligent insect creatures.
Large new telescopes revealed visually what the planets looked like but not what was on their surface. However, careful observations when planets crossed in front of a distant star or the Sun provided a brief momentary glimpse of when atmospheres might be detected. So, rare occultations were big deals.
Expeditions traveled the world to watch stars blink out or planets move across the face of the sun to determine if they had atmospheres and through timing and triangulation, how far away they were from Earth. In 1769, Captain Cook sailed to Tahiti to observe the passage of Venus across the face of the sun. This was a grand move for science but a bad move for Captain Cook. A few months later, stopping in Hawaii, natives killed him and reportedly ate him for supper. “Some parts are edible,” so sayeth Euell Gibbons.
The Moon was the first space object to be crossed off the list. Evidently, God had slacked off on this diminutive world. Even though H.G. Wells was certain Selenites roamed the caverns of the moons, he was wrong. As we recently confirmed once again here in the 21st Century, when the Moon crossed the visual path of Mars, the red planet did not waver or scintillate as its light passed through the edges of the Moon’s atmosphere. It simply blinked out ending any hope for lunar life along with the prospects of Qatar hosting a future outdoor World Cup Soccer (not to be confused with football) match.
The pictures tell you how it appeared last night from the Mt. Sopris Observatory!
Edt: Mars is the tiny red dot located at 7 o’clock (until it nearly isn’t anymore) in the photos.
DAVID A. AGUILAR is an internationally recognized naturalist/astronomer, author and space artist who has written and illustrated twelve award-winning children’s books on astronomy for National Geographic/Disney, Smithsonian and Penguin Random House.