Two Weeks on Mars
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Two Weeks on Mars

An Exploration of the Red Planet
with the 36-inch Refractor of the
Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton, California
During Its Close Approach in August/September 2003
With Some Notes on Perception and the Planets

By Bill Sheehan, Tony Misch, Laurie Hatch, and Rem Stone

In late August 2003, Mars made a spectacularly close approach to the Earth, passing at a distance of only 55,758,006 kilometers. According to calculations made by Jeff Beish of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers and Jim de Young of the U.S. Naval Observatory Time Service, this approach was the closest the planet made in 60,000 years. (The last time Mars was so close, the Neanderthals were still in Europe, working the hand-chipped tools of the Mousterian. Homo sapiens had not yet, or had hardly, emerged from Africa, and may have just escaped a near-extinction event that had reduced their numbers to perhaps as few as 2,000 individuals.)

The realization that Mars would not again be as close as this during our lifetimes motivated us to mount an ambitious study of Mars near the Earth with the legendary 36-inch Clark refractor of the Lick Observatory. This telescope had been specifically designed for visual observations and is among the best, if not the best, telescope on Earth for the kind of work we wanted to do.

One of E. E. Barnard's observing books from the 1894 opposition

In 2003, we were interested in making physical observations of Mars - examining the albedo features of the planet in order to document changes that had occurred since E. E. Barnard made a classic series of drawings with the telescope in the 1890s, and in monitoring the planet for dust-storm activity. But we were mainly interested in studying the nature of perception -- the way the eye-brain-hand combination interprets planetary detail near the limits of resolution - and in drawing the planet.

Two Lick directors, one active and the other emeritus, encouraged our application for telescope time through the Small Telescopes program of the Lick Observatory: Joseph Miller and Donald Osterbrock. Our thanks to them for seeing the possibilities of our project and lending their support and encouragement. We thank all the astronomers, technicians, support staff and others who enthusiastically participated in our project.

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