Tonight I saw the planet Mars with my own eyes.
We’ve all been hearing that Mars is as close as it will be to Earth for the next sixty thousand years. Unfortunately, since I live in the UK I haven’t really had the opportunity to look for Mars since our skies have been swathed in cloud for the past week. This evening, though, I noticed that the skies were very clear and began to scan them occasionally. A few hours later, I pointed to a chip of bright light in the south that almost seemed as big as a disc and said to my friends, “That’s got to be Mars.” There wasn’t anything brighter in the sky.
When I got back about an hour ago, I decided that I wanted to look at Mars through my telescope. I’ve never been a particularly diligent astronomer – to be honest, I’m just not that interested in it. So I’m forced to say that the lovely Bausch and Lomb reflector telescope that I won five years ago from the Mars Society was a bit wasted on me. Nevertheless, when it arrived from America and I put it up on the first clear night that came, I managed to see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, all in one night, by the simple (and simple-minded) expedient of pointing it at interesting-looking bright points of light.
Of course this is no way to use a telescope; what I should have done is lined it up on the pole star, gotten a star chart out and actually figured out what the telescope’s various lenses did.
I’m embarrased to say that I haven’t gotten any better at all in the five years since, so tonight I just got the telescope out, lined it up on Mars using the little finderscope and spent about ten minutes fiddling about with the fine grain controls, swapping lenses in and out and the messing about with the focus. While I was futilely scanning around, I noticed a bright patch of light at the top of the viewfinder. I immediately looked towards it and brought it into focus.
It was Mars, and I could see it as a bright and clearly defined disc. It was a tiny disc, but it was still there. After pausing for a couple of minutes just to savour the moment and think that I was finally seeing it with my own eyes, I swapped in a 7mm lense to up the magnification – and yes, it became a slightly larger disc. Maybe I was just imagining it, but I convinced myself that I could just about see the poles; there was an almost imperceptibly subtle difference in the shading on the disc.
I stood there, stooped over the viewfinder, and I thought for a moment that I could reach out and touch the planet. I thought, What I would give to walk on there for a just a few minutes. And then eventually I carefully packed away the lenses, collapsed the tripod and carried the telescope back inside.
It’s easy to look at the photos of Mars on the Internet and in the newspapers and wonder what the point is of staying up at night in the cold and peering through a telescope to see an image that isn’t anywhere near as big or colourful or clear. I know, because that’s what I thought yesterday.
But the sensation of seeing another planet with your own eyes, a planet that could have someone walking on it within your lifetime, a planet that’s big enough to hold a million dreams – it’s not something that you can get by looking at a piece of paper or a computer monitor. It conjured up the same feeling I had when I first saw the Milky Way, that the universe is impossibly vast and beautiful and bursting with things to see, that we as a species have the wonderful opportunity to explore. There’s an awful lot to see out there.